By Mary Pringle for Island Eye News
Photos by Barbara Bergwerf
We knew it was only a matter of time before coyotes began to prey on the sea turtle nests on Sullivan’s and the Isle of Palms. But it was still very upsetting to discover on the morning of June 22 that a nesting female loggerhead had laid a nest near Station 26 and that a group of coyotes had dug it up and eaten the eggs. She laid 120 eggs and apparently finished covering them up and throwing sand around to hide the spot. But when we arrived the next morning there was a large hole and 96 empty eggshells strewn around on the beach near it. We dug up 24 eggs that had not been destroyed and relocated this very small clutch to a small primary dune halfway between Stations 26 and 25. There were distinct tracks from four coyotes that led back over the dunes and into the accreted maritime forest. Each one must have eaten two dozen eggs—quite a large meal!
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources newsletter called “Loggerheadlines” which was published at the end of last year’s nesting season pointed out that coyotes preying on sea turtle nests had increased at an unbelievable rate just in the last three years. In 2011 less than a dozen nests in SC were lost to them. But in 2014 almost 200 were destroyed by coyotes. This took place on seven different nesting beaches including Kiawah and several islands on the coast in the Georgetown area with scores of nests being eaten by this new predator.
I have heard that in some places coyotes run up and down the beach all night waiting for nesting turtles to come ashore. They wait until they have laid their eggs and dig them up right then. This “first night predation” is practically impossible to stop, and that is what happened the night of June 22-23 at Station 26.
The next night a turtle tried to nest at Station 30 and then again at Station 28.5 but both times it was only a false (non-nesting) crawl that we found. However, there appeared to be coyote tracks on top of the tracks and circling around them. We will never know if they disturbed her and caused her not to lay or if they just came along after she had crawled back to the water after changing her mind and deciding not to nest.
What can we do about it? At the statewide permit holders’ meeting at SCDNR at the end of the season, we discussed this problem. Many things have been tried. Among them is using plastic screening just under the surface of the sand. This works for raccoons, but coyotes just dig right through it to the eggs. Wire cages over the nest don’t seem to stop them either. We have seen pictures of how coyotes dig under the cages even if they are set deep into the sand. The permit holder from Debordieu Beach said that the only thing that has worked for them is to place pennants like those used at used car lots on taller sticks around the nests. The sound of these snapping and flapping in the wind on the beach did scare them away.
So that is what we are going to try on our existing nests at Station 25 and 26 as well as Nest #3 containing only 24 eggs halfway between these two Stations. If you see red, white, and blue pennants flying over those nests, you will know it is not a July 4 display but an attempt at scaring coyotes away. We are also placing 4 foot square staked down mesh screens over the nests. Wish us luck!