Monday, May 29, 2006

Carnival of the Green #29

The latest carnival of the green is online: Carnival of the Green #29.

This carnival includes a link to my "Saving the Leatherback Turtles" article included below. Check out the carnival and if you appreciate it, leave a comment.

Ask a Science Blogger

I stumbled across a new innovative blog article. It is call "Ask a Science Blogger". It is similar to a blog carnival, with multiple submissions, but it is more structured in its creation. The idea is that each week a question is posed to the bloggers who host their blog on The various answers to the question are then formed into a blog index similar to a carnival. The process allows anyone to submit questions for future consideration.

This weeks question is "If you could shake the public and make them understand one scientific idea, what would it be?"

Very interesting responses here: Ask A ScienceBlogger, Round Three: the Results are In!

They are all excellent responses, but I would have to agree most with grrlscientist at Living the Scientific Life, that "what the scientific method is" is critically important. Enjoy.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Owlets Grow Up

For those of you who track this blog over time, you will know that we have been following a Great Horned Owl family that nests in the foothills near our house. This year the family raised 4 chicks. The first owlets fledged just before we left on our trip to St Croix (story below). Today, Karyn and I went out searching for the family. We needed to look no further than the "Owl's Roost" trail in the Boise foothills. We were able to find the mother, father and three of the chicks. We searched the trees, but could not locate the fourth chick. It doesn't mean that it hasn't survived, it could just be hidden from view. We will continue to look for them and will post another message if we find the fourth. Here are photos of the three chicks that we found.

We looked in the Redtail nest and all was quiet. They apparently fledged while we were out of town. Redtails soared overhead, but we could not distinguish chicks or adults.
Update - 5/29/2006: On our mountain bike ride this morning we took a quick spin down the "Owl's Roost" trail. We easily found all four chicks. Three in one tree and one in the next.

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

St Croix Snorkeling

Here's some snorkeling pictures from our recent trip to St Croix. See the full trip report further down on this blog - "Saving the Leatherback Turtle". Click on photos to view larger image.

One of two octopus we found out in front of our cottage.
Nurse Shark from the Buck Island Snorkel trip. We would also see one snorkeling in front of our cottage and on one of our scuba dives.
Stoplight Parrotfish at Buck Island.
Surgeon Fish during Buck Island Snorkel.
Hawksbill Turtle that we found during our Buck Island Snorkel.
More Surgeon Fish.
Large Barracuda during Buck Island snorkel.

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I and the Bird #24 Blog Carnival

The I and the Bird #24 blog carnival is now online at Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding.

Enjoy this version and check back here in two weeks as I will be hosting the next version.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Saving the Leatherback Turtle

After 6 months of waiting, our Earthwatch Institute trip to St Croix has arrived. The trip is a gift from Karyn and myself to help celebrate my 40th birthday. Karyn chose her trip last year. The trip to St Croix involves 4 days of pure vacation, primarily snorkeling and scuba diving, followed by 11 days of volunteer work with the endangered Leatherback sea turtles as part of the Earthwatch Institute. Karyn and I are both huge turtle fans, so this is set up to be a great trip.

Copyright Reprinted with permission.
About the Earthwatch Institute: The Institute in a non-profit group that links volunteers with environmental research projects around the world. The volunteers pay to attend, which partially or wholly covers the cost of the research. Earthwatch has hundreds of projects available. Our project involves research, monitoring, and in some cases intervention to help the endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles survive. The worldwide Leatherback Sea turtle population has been in serious decline for a number of years. St Croix is the largest breeding population of Leatherbacks in any US territory. Through intervention by the research team and Earthwatch, the population here has been slowly increasing.

Karyn and I arrived at Cottages by the Sea on St Croix late on Saturday night.

Our cottage was downstairs, facing the beach.
Most of the night was spent fighting mosquitoes in our room. The cottages are nice and right on the beach, but have a tendency to attract mosquitoes. Sunday involved getting acclimatized to the weather, which was a shock from both a temperature and a humidity perspective. We were also recovering from the jetlag. We did have enough energy to take in some snorkeling. The snorkeling is good right in front of our cottage. Monday we signed up for a two tank boat scuba dive with Chris and Laura from ScubaWest. We had an excellent experience with them. They took care of all of the details, quick boat ride out, smooth water, and a great reef. Among the highlights included a nurse shark, spider crabs, squid, filefish, barracuda, and pufferfish. The next day we returned to ScubaWest for more diving. The highlights included diving the wreckage of the old pier, taken out by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Queen angels, French Angels, Scorpionfish, and Stingrays. During the afternoon, Karyn entered the bathroom of our cottage. She was surprised as the trash basket moved. Upon further inspection we found a land crab frightened in the corner.

Land crab in the bathroom
It had entered through a small hole in the wall. We ushered it safely outside. Later that night, we explored the city pier in a night dive. Lots of lobsters, crabs, an octopus, and a seahorse.

Turtles Day 1: On the afternoon of day 1 we met the rest of the volunteers. It looks to be a great team.

top row: Jeannine, Kate, Ben, David.
front row: Karyn, Linnaea, Rob (me).

There is David, an attorney from the UK, who would be the center of our late night entertainment. He would lead the group in charades, create trivia quizzes, demonstrate exceptional "Body Pitting", etc to keep us awake between beach patrols. Kate, an IT consultant from the UK, whose warm selfless attitude adds a great deal to the team. We called Kate "Kite" for most of the week. During introductions, Kendra from the research team, mistook Kate's British accent and thought her name was Kite! Jeannine is a poet and writer from Florida who always wanted to be a marine biologist. She is always ready to jump in and help. Ben is a college student originally from Texas, majoring in environmental studies. He always keeps the team alert by instigating different types of mischief. Linnaea is a quiet high school valedictorian from upstate New York who is using this trip as a senior project. She plans to major in biology as she enters college next year. She would join Karyn and I as the "Earthwatch 2" sub-team patrolling the beach. Later that afternoon, the researchers joined us to introduce themselves and introduce us to the project. Most of the content covered the logistics of the program, with some data on the Leatherbacks themselves. The program here in St Croix has been a huge success in increasing the success of Leatherback nests and hatchlings. We as a team will be working to continue this success. The researchers are also introducing a number of new research projects this year in which we will be assisting. After dinner, we headed out to the beach for our first half-night of patrols. The plan is to slowly adjust ourselves to the night shift. On the first night we were primarily tourists as our formal training begins on the afternoon of day 2. The plan was to go onto the beach to see our first turtle nest or stay until midnight, whichever came first. Being just three days until the full moon, the evening was gorgeous. No need for headlamps as the moonlight reflected off of the white sand. We worked in hourly patrols up and down the beach. Inbetween patrols we discussed the science and other topics with the researchers. Unfortunately, midnight came before the turtles. We returned to our cottages unfulfilled.

Turtles Day 2: Day 1 might have been a bust, but day two more than made up for it. Our first long day 8am to 5:30am was a challenge. Karyn and I snorkeled in front of the Cottages in the morning. Great snorkel. Two spotted moray eels, two squid, pufferfish, lobster, and plenty of fish. In the afternoon, our training continued. We learned about the nesting cycle of Leatherback Turtles, the process of recording the scientific information in the field, and about safety on and off the beach. After the training we were eager to get in the field. We ate dinner as a team and at 8pm we headed out for the evening. Shortly after arriving on the beach, our group headed North for a patrol. We found one set of fresh tracks where a Leatherback apparently came out of the water to nest, but tried to get up over a burm, failed and returned to the water. She would likely be back up later in the evening. Minutes later we received a report on the radio of a turtle on the beach. Not a Leatherback, but a Hawksbill. We reversed direction and headed down to check it out. The Hawksbill follows the same cycle as the Leatherback, but are much more easily disturbed. We waited until the egg laying began, then approached. The turtles enter a trance as they lay the eggs and are not disturbed by people. We watched as the eggs dropped into the nest, 2-3 at a time. The eggs are about golf ball sized. She then buried and tamped the nest, disguised the nest to keep predators away, and then returned to the water. Moments after she entered the water, we received the report of a Leatherback on the beach. We hustled up to find her "body pitting", the process of clearing away the dry sand layer and positioning herself in for digging the nest. She was huge, estimated about 800 pounds! Once the body pitting was complete, she started to dig the nest. At this point, we are able to approach from behind and watch the process, being careful not to disturb her. The nest digging is amazing. They dig completely by feel with their rear flippers. They can actually reach down into the hole, pick up a scoop of sand, lift it out, and set it aside. It was much more graceful and controlled than I had expected. Also much more graceful than the Hawksbill. This particular nest was laid in a portion of the beach that usually erodes over the next 2 months. Therefore, this nest needed to be moved. One of the researchers crawled half way down into the hole as the turtle began to lay eggs. She caught the eggs and pulled them out to be relocated. Since Leatherbacks are endangered, this measure helps increase the productivity of the nests. After the eggs were all laid, the turtle began to cover the nest and tamp it down. This too was a very controlled procedure of putting some sand back in the hole and then tamping it down, more sand, tamp, etc. While this was occurring we saw another turtle head up the beach. As we were being trained on this turtle, we stayed with it, as a few of the researchers split off to go work with the new turtle. A new hole was dug in the safe part of the beach to bury eggs in as close as possible replication of the original hole. This included the diameter of the hole, the depth, and the slanting base (the boot) at the bottom of the nest. Once the eggs were buried we went back to check on the mother. She had buried the original nest and was still in the process of disguising it. We left her and moved on to the new turtle who was now in the nest digging phase. This turtle would be our team of volunteers first project, guided by the researchers of course. Since this nest also had to be moved, Ben agreed to catch the eggs. I volunteered to take the egg hand-off from Ben and put them in the sack for transportation to the new nest hole. Karyn participated in measuring the turtle's carapace (shell, although on Leatherbacks it is not hard but instead a thick leathery material, hence the name). The eggs themselves are soft and flexible. They are reasonably strong as they are dropped in the nest, usually 20-25 inches deep. She laid 76 yolked eggs and 37 yolkless. There are differing theories on the purpose of the yolkless eggs. We finished relocating the nest about 1am. A short while later another turtle came up onto the beach. This one, based on past knowledge of this turtle was a candidate to have a tracking mechanism attached to her. The mechanism will track her GPS location and dive depth to be reported back. This will help the researchers learn more about their behavior between subsequent nesting (Leatherbacks will nest every 10 days or so for a total of 3-10 times, they will then wait 2-7 years to nest again). Due to the soft shell of the Leatherback, the research team must use a harness for attachment. Due to the limited time to get it all attached, while the turtle was still in the trance, the professionals took over on this one. It was a race against time as they finished just as she was burying the nest. We had to leave on another patrol just before they finished. Since there were no turtles on the beach at 4:30am, we called it a night (or morning?).

Turtles Day 3: Slept until about noon. Woke up feeling pretty good. Headed out on another snorkel. Today we saw the usual fish, but in addition, saw a large Barracuda, a small Hawksbill Turtle, and a Spotted Moray. Not bad for snorkeling right in front of our cottage. The day passed quickly which tends to happen when you don't get up until noon. Some of the research staff joined us for dinner before our 8pm departure to the beach. The sky was amazing. Full moon with numerous thunderstorms in the distance, lighting up the night sky. The volunteers split up into two patrol teams, each supported by a researcher. Today we lead all of the data collection, receiving instruction and feedback from the turtle team. The action started on our first patrol. Linnaea caught the eggs, which would be relocated, I took the nest measurements, location, etc, and Karyn performed the diagnosis, noting scars, ectobiotica, etc. It all went smoothly. The other Earthwatch team was working a turtle just up the beach. Upon completing our work, we went to watch the other team. As I sat in the sand near the water, I hear a splash directly behind me. I turn to see another turtle coming up in the same location. Our team would work this one. It turned out to be a neophyte. No identification tags. Probably a 7 to 10 year old turtle, laying for her first time. Probably born on this beach. This would be her first time out of the water since she entered as a hatchling. This particular part of the beach has a steep vertical bank about 6 feet high, from the water up to the main sandy part of the beach. The other turtle apparently had little difficulty pulling herself up, although most of them do. Our neophyte tried for some time to get up, but could not. She started digging right at the water line. This nest would have to be moved, or the eggs would drown immediately (they absorb oxygen through their shells). It was my turn to catch the eggs, and thus lay in the surf! She apparently realized her error and abandoned the digging. She tried again to get up the bank, but once again failed. She started digging again in a slightly better, but equally doomed location, just a foot above the water line. While she was digging, it was determined that her eggs would be used for a new research project comparing hatch success between neophytes and experienced mothers. To keep the experiment true, the same researcher would catch all of the eggs in the experiment. Thus, I did not have to lay in the surf after all! By this time the earlier turtle up on the beach had completed the disguising of her nest, walked to the embankment, and performed this amazing slide down into the water. Moonlit, we watch her shadow in the water as she swam out, surfaced for one breath, dove down again, surfaced for another breath, then dove down and disappeared from sight. Finishing up with our turtle, we headed out on patrol. This would be an end to our action for the night. A total of 5 turtles nested on the beach tonight. On a side note, the researcher from NOAA told us that the turtle fitted with a harness the previous night was out about 10km over deep water (600 meters deep). If she stays in this location, this is probably where the males are, mating with one or more of them before returning in 10 days for another nest. The last turtle of the this night was also fitted with a tracking harness. Finished with our work we left the beach about 4:30am. On the way back, we discovered the largest spider I have ever seen in the back of the truck. As the screaming ensued, the driver stopped the truck and sent back a researcher (Kendra) to save us. Once they informed us that the "Mango Spider" was not harmful, everyone decided it would be ok to stay. It would ride back and forth with us for two more days.

Turtles Day 4: We are now getting settled into the afternoon routine. While snorkeling we saw the usual fish but nothing unique today. There was a jet ski riding back and forth near the reef and a local spear fisherman on the reef. Still saw lots of fish, and a few scorpion fish. The turtling was quite different however. After a slow start to the evening, the other team had a turtle on the beach. We joined them to watch. Karyn was able to get up close to the turtle's head and sketch as she was laying eggs. I looked up the beach and saw another turtle exiting the water. Time for our group to go to work. After a quick identification, it was determined that this turtle would be outfitted with a tracking harness. She too had difficulty getting over the bank up onto the main part of the beach. She started digging right at the edge of the surf. Normally the research team would take over for the harnessed turtles as time is critical. Unfortunately, only a few of them arrived by the time our turtle began to lay eggs. Total chaos. One researcher started catching the eggs from the doomed nest, while the harness researcher instructed us to start digging underneath the turtle so we could strap on the harness. Since she was laying on a steep incline, this 800 pound turtle started slipping down the bank as we tried to rescue the eggs, without getting pinned beneath her. It all worked out, but there were a number of close calls. The harness was completed just as the turtle started to disguise the nest. Shortly after she returned to the water, we received a report of two new turtles on the beach. We hustled down to begin our process again. Our turtle's nest was in a questional part of the beach, not completely doomed, but the decision was made to once again capture the eggs. It is amazing to me the number of doomed nests that get laid. Leatherback's have the lowest hatch rate of all turtles, which is compounded by the number of doomed nests. It can take over 40 years for two turtles to get two successful offspring to survive to adulthood. With the negative imact that humans are having on the adult populations, primarily through fishing practices, it is not surprising that the population is in serious decline. Anyway, it was my turn to catch the eggs. This was an amazing experience. You must get ready as the turtle digs the nest. When the nest is complete, she will cover the nest with her rear flippers. You then crawl down part way into the body pit created by the turtle, reach around each side of her tail and wait for the eggs. The turtle's contractions cause her tail to move forward and she ejects 2-4 yolked eggs from the base of her tail with each contraction. Each contraction is about 5 seconds apart. We catch the eggs with both hands, transferring them to the bag with one hand, while ensuring that no eggs are dropped with the other hand. All of this while trying not to slide head first further down into the nest. This was an unbelievable experience and I can honestly say that I can't imagine a more intimate experience with a turtle! My turtle laid 97 yolked and 45 yolkless eggs. With our work here completed, we returned to the patrols. The other team was working a turtle, who also failed to get up over the embankment, trying to dig a nest in the surf. When it failed, she returned to the water without laying. She will probably come back the next evening. While sitting at one of our rendezvous, known as the "mid-point", David led us in a game of charades to keep us all awake. He demonstrated his "body pitting" technique which is sure to draw the envy of the entire Leatherback Turtle community. Later in the evening, we were just about to leave on another patrol as a turtle came up the beach right in front of us. This was in a friendlier (easier access) part of the beach, but the turtle climbed over the burm, up onto the beach, then turned around and went back out. We log this as a "Track only" encounter. We will probably see her again on the next evening. Thus for the evening, we logged four nests, one failed nest, and one track only. On the way back home, we had a new truck stopping adventure. Jeanne stopped the truck to avoid running over a land crab. The crab, then ran over to the truck and climbed up on the wheel. It took a few minutes to coax the crab out of the wheel well so it would not be killed. The group is very friendly toward all forms of wildlife.

Turtles Day 5: Good snorkeling today - spotted moray, peacock flounder, trumpet fish, pipefish, little crabs, and the usual snappers and surgeonfish. I could get used to this life. Unfortunately, 8pm came around quickly. Out on the beach patrol, the action started early. Just two hundred yards up the beach, we found our "track only" turtle from the previous night. Our team stopped here to work with her. Just up the beach, they found another turtle already digging. The other team took that one. Just a few minutes later, another came up on our beach just 10 yards from our turtle. My team would be working with both of them. A fourth was on the beach further south. Our two were conveniently facing away from each other, enabling us to sit and work inbetween them. This particular part of the beach is troublesome as the nests keep collapsing. Our first turtle dug and abandoned two nests because of cave-ins, before settling into her third. It was Karyn's turn to catch the eggs, as this nest must be relocated. The other turtle dug two nests and then abandoned and returned to the water without laying. She would come back up later in the evening. With our work completed, we continued up the beach on patrol. We quickly found another turtle with her nest nearly complete. This nest was on a good part of the beach, so it will be left as a natural nest. All in all we ended up with eight nests for the evening. The inter-patrol entertainment from David included a list of British trivia questions. He was very disappointed in our results!

Turtles Day 6: Today was our official day off. It came with mixed emotions as we were just getting fully into the work routine. I feel somewhat guilty for not being out there. Since today was supposed to be a rest day, we of course, got up hours early to take a sailing and snorkeling tour out to Buck Island. They cheated on the way out and used the engine. The snorkeling was excellent. Navigating through trails in the elkhorn coral, we saw a hawksbill turtle, a nurse shark, a couple barracuda, lots of rainbow and stoplight parrots, a huge school of surgeon fish, juvenile french angels, and a beautiful needle nose butterfly fish. Unfortunately, we ran out of time and had to get back on the boat. We did sail all of the way back to port. It was an excellent trip. While in Christiansted, our Earthwatch group went out to dinner together, before returning to our hotel. Tired from the lack of sleep, yet not wanting to return to a normal time schedule, we all struggled to stay up late.

Turtles Day 7: Today we get back on our normal schedule of sleeping in late and staying up all night. On today's snorkel we found an octopus and followed it around for a while. It was amazing to watch it change it's color and texture to match its surroundings. It also seemed to be flounder day as we found five flounders, three adults and two juveniles. Great dinner provided by a local restaurant that has been contracted to cook for us each night. Out in the field it was a bit darker tonight as we move further past the full moon. The stars are quite amazing, seeing both the North Star and the Southern Cross. We had five turtles on the beach tonight, our group worked three of them. The first we had to relocate the nest as she was laying near the surf. She had laid 6 eggs when we found her, so it was fairly hectic for a while. Linnaea jumped in to catch the eggs. The research team estimates that our intervention in relocating nests is doubling the number of hatchlings that will reach the water. Thus, this will essentially double the number of hatchlings that make it to adulthood. The second turtle nested in a great spot, so her nest would stay natural. The third turtle was a candidate for a harness, based on her previous predictable nesting pattern. As we called in the details, the harness crew had to run up the beach to find us. The turtle abandoned her first nest due to cave ins, giving them plenty of time. Unfortunately, she abandoned her second nest which had roots in it and returned to the water without laying. This is too bad as she had chosen a part of the beach which would allow the nest to stay natural. She should be back up tomorrow, but likely in a different part of the beach.

Turtles Day 8: David joined us for the snorkel today. The highlight was a spotted moray eel and a chain moray eel near each other. We have never seen a chain moray before. We also saw the usual scorpion fish, flounders, snappers, jacks, etc. The beach patrol was a little slow this evening. The first turtle was a harness candidate. We were assigned to cover another patrol, so we did not participate in the harnessing project. Later in the evening, our group had one turtle up. It was my turn to catch the eggs. 69 yolked and 67 yolkless, a somewhat unusual proportion. The particular turtle had a three inch long, half inch deep, gash in its head. Probably from a boat propeller. It was very recent as it was still bleeding. It amazes me how beat up some of these turtles are, yet they are still here laying eggs. Some have propeller scars, some have shark bites. It is a dangerous world for a turtle as they must return to the surface for every breath they take. No other turtles came up for our team the rest of the night. The other group had three on the beach. The breeze was up, eliminating the bugs, which made for a beautiful night.

Turtles Day 9: Karyn and I tried a different route for the snorkel today. Thought we would try to swim out to the dive site buoys. Half way out we determined it was too far and circled around to the North. It must have been the day of the eels - Garden eels, a spotted moray eel, and two snake eels. Karyn found a nurse shark tucked under a ledge, but we could only see its tail. We also came upon a coral head where Damsel fish were spawning. They would charge us as we approached (not to worry, a Damsel fish is only a few inches long). Out on the beach, we quickly fell into the normal routine of the night patrols. Our team had one nest for the evening, and Karyn caught the eggs. She was laying down near the surf, but stayed dry for the delivery. Kendra the field researcher got wet tacking blood lower in the surf line.Hatchlings!!! The research director found an emerged nest, but the hatchlings were already gone. In excavating the nest she found four stragglers which were still alive. They would not likely have survived on their own, but were given one last chance. We were able to get a good look at them and hold them before placing them about 10 feet from the water line. They are never placed directly into the water. They must walk in themselves in case this journey is important in orienting them to their home beach. They are just about the size of the palm of your hand. It is amazing that they can grow to over 800 pounds eating a diet of only jellyfish. Two of them went full speed into the water. A wave came up and washed them out to sea. We will never know if they made it. The other two needed a little extra orientation and time to get into the water, but all four eventually made it and now have one more chance to survive. They will need to find a jellyfish very soon for energy and to start the growth required to make them less vulnerable. Back to the patrols. While waiting at a place on the beach referred to as the "midpoint", the place where the North and South patrols meet, I saw what looked to be a new track up the beach. It was hard to tell in the dark. I started walking down toward the track to see what it was. I could see the track, but could not see a turtle. All of the sudden a Hawksbill turtle turned and ran back into the water. They are skittish and can move very quickly! I was bummed that I scared her off the beach. She had not returned by the time that we left the beach at 3:45am. Hopefully, she did successfully lay her nest.

Turtles Day 10: The last official day of the Earthwatch session. It came too soon. For today's snorkel we first went out to check on the Nurse Shark. It was still there, but in a different orientation. We could now see the head and tail. We then returned to our normal snorkel path. Found a stingray, spotted moray eel, and watched as a few Damsel's challenged some Trigger fish. The Trigger fish, much larger than the Damsel's, would raise its trigger each time the Damsel moved forward. At dinner we held a birthday party for Jeremy, one of the researchers.

Some of the West Indies Marine Animal Research and Conservation Service Team. From left - Tiffany, Jeanne (principle investigator), Steve (executive director) and Jeremy. Not shown - Kendra, Mandy, and Emily.
The group was a little sluggish and tired as we headed out on the night patrol. The weather was hot and there was not the slightest breeze to keep the bugs away. They were all over us, flying in your face and eyes, etc. It was a quite miserable experience. To make matters worse, we only had one turtle on the beach all night. I guess they can't all be perfect evenings. We wearily said goodbye to most of our group as many had early morning flights. Since we were not leaving for another day, I volunteered for one more night on the beach, hoping it would be different than this one.

The day after: When we got out of bed at about 11am, all were gone except for Kate and David who were flying back to the UK on the same flight later in the afternoon. We had a nice breakfast with them before we went out for our final snorkel. Great way to finish, seeing the nurse shark, two octopus, the moray, some spawning Damsels, among others. We made reservations for dinner at the restaurant next door. Great food, beautiful sunset, and live jazz. They also have the best key lime pie. I rode out to the beach with the researcher who originally set up the turtle project in St Croix, Peter Dutton. It was great to get his perspective on what worked and what did not in getting the program started. One example, is that the nests we now relocate were originally incubated in the lab. It was later determined that this process, due to fluctuating temperatures, was producing almost entirely male hatchlings. This is when the process was changed to rebury the eggs on the beach, even though the hatch rate is lower. The night would be a huge improvement on the previous night. There was a strong breeze on all parts of the beach. Once out, we quickly found three turtles digging nests. I was instructed to stay with a turtle that had an injured rear flipper. She could dig the sand and scoop it up, but could not lift it out of the hole. She wasn't doing too bad with the single rear flipper, but she did have a few cave-ins and eventually abandoned it and returned to the water. A fourth turtle came up a short distance away. I ran down there to catch the eggs for relocation. A short while later a fifth turtle was on the beach. This pattern would continue for the next few hours. In all we would have 10 Leatherback and one Hawksbill up on the beach this night.

The trip home: Argh, three hours sleep... 15 hours of traveling...

Conclusions: In the end, our experience was excellent all around. We worked on a great project, with a great team (both the volunteers and the research staff). I would highly recommend the Earthwatch Institute and especially the "Saving the Leatherback Turtle" Project. Earthwatch has great programs and a great model to benefit both you as a volunteer and the research they fund. The Wimarcs Team (primary research team and the hosts for the project) was outstanding at their job and how they took care of us. The Cottages by the Sea accomodations worked out well and the staff went the extra mile to accomodate our needs.

But, the real stars of the show were the endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles. They have survived the 1000 to 1 odds to grow from a 1/8 pound hatchling on this beach to an 800 pound adult. Everyday they face an increased onslaught of human pressures, from pollution to ships to fishing practicies, which are causing their numbers to rapidly decline. Almost all of them showed the wounds from these impacts. Many on the beach showed the wounds from shark attacks. Through all of this adversity, some make it back here, to crawl out of their natural environment, feeling the unusual pressures of gravity on their massive bulk. Stuggling up the beach to carefully and methodically dig a nest so that their offspring will have the best chance possible to survive.

The bottom line is that these Turtles play a numbers game. Lots of nests and lots of eggs in the hopes for one or two offspring to survive. With the large negative human impact on the population, the numbers don't add up. There are not enough nests and not enough eggs to balance the equation. Without positive human intervention, this species no longer has a chance on this planet. It is amazing that a species that has survived 150 million years and the End-Cretaceous Mass Extinction, can be driven to the brink of extinction with just the last 50-100 years of human impact.

With the dedicated efforts of the Earthwatch and Wimarcs organizations, the St Croix population is rebounding (see article - ScienceDaily: Caribbean Leatherback Sea Turtles Stage Comeback). The intervention to save every nest, and to increase the hatch success, has put the balance of the equation back to growth. If the human impacts don't grow, and the intervention continues, the St Croix population will do alright. I feel great satisfaction that I was able to contribute.

Article featured on the Earthwatch website at: Expedition Blogs & Field Journals and in the latest: Animal Broadcast Carnival of the Green #29.

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Birds in the News

You go on vacation for two weeks and the world just keeps on moving without you. Here are the last three versions of Birds in the News:

Birds in the News 57 (v2n8)

Birds in the News 58 (v2n9)

Birds in the News 59 (v2n10)

Saturday, May 13, 2006

I and the Bird #23 now online

Another edition of I and the Bird is online. This edition also includes a link back here to my article on the Mistaken Identity. Two more editions until its my turn to host. On June 8th, I and the Bird will visit Idaho!

In the mean time, I and the Bird #23 is now online.

If you appreciate the edition, leave a comment for the host!

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Monday, May 01, 2006

Birds in the News 56 (v2n7)

Birds in the News 56 (v2n7) is online at Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted). This edition includes, as it does every week, great stories, great science, and great photos.