Turtles are Inconsiderate Animals

Great Dismal! Prime Hook! And now Back Bay- where will this girl go next?

I’ll tell you where- straight to bed.

I am exhausted.

But I had a wonderful time at Back Bay - Sunday afternoon I loaded up the truck and cruised over to Virginia Beach. My primary motivation for going was for their Loggerhead turtle program, the refuge hugs the beach and closely monitors, protects, and supports loggerhead turtle nests. I was really hoping to get to see some eggs hatch, since it’s getting to be time.

Before I nest-sat, I packed up my backpack and wandered from the gloriously beautiful Administration building I spent the night at to the Visitor’s center in the refuge proper. The Admin building is a converted house, with a wooden deck that overlooks a little pond.

I was the first person to the office- apparently the night before the first nest had hatched at 1 am. The biologist had been up until four working to make sure the turtles made it to the ocean safely, and unfortunately, they were so busy with the nest that they didn’t get the chance to call me in. Though I had pledged my morning to the bird survey, so I wasn’t terribly upset.

The volunteer running the survey is a volunteer and an expert birder. He is a retired Chemistry Professor (and he eased my mind about a lot of my past experiences with the subject) and incredibly passionate about birds. These are the experiences I pick out, because while I don’t know anything about birds, there is so much to be learned from someone with this level of experience and passion. It was also a great chance to get a first hand look of the refuge.

Back Bay has a really large connection to the adjacent beach community, they even have a tram that does daily tours. I chose to get the inside scoop on the refuge, and I was far from disappointed. Aside from telling me about the year he took to see as many birds as possible all over the United States, I learned about the birds in the Back Bay area, the volunteer was able to tell me about the restoration and protection efforts over the years, and he’s been involved for so long he knew how much the tree sparrow population has changed over the years.

During the first survey on the refuge proper, I saw two bald eagles. It was the first time I had seen them outside of my television set, and I was so excited. They were perched in a snag in the distance, and I had to use my borrowed binoculars to get a glimpse. There was one adult and one bird of the year- the rest of the office was pretty unimpressed with our sighting, but I was over the moon.

Another noteworthy bird is the tricolour heron. It’s smaller than the great blue heron, and has blue, white, and red feathers. There was one near the road in one of the impoundments as we drove by, and the red of its feathers was as bright as red clay.

In the afternoon, I tagged along for the beach survey of the shore birds. We drove up and down the beach, racing the incoming storm as we tallied the sanderlings, plovers, gulls, and terns. I’m no expert, but I now know my way around a shore bird. We even saw two piping plovers! These are a huge subject of protection and observation efforts up and down the east coast, so when we saw two of those cute little birds skittering around the shore, it was a big deal.

I returned to the refuge at 7:30 to go nest sitting. The nest I watched had hatched the night before, but only 67 of about 100 eggs had hatched, so we were so sure we were going to get some stragglers. I was with another volunteer, someone who had been coming to nest sit and patrol for close to a decade. We hit it off really well, which I’m thankful for, because the shift went until 3:30 am.

The weather was miserable as I left the Admin building- it was pouring, and somehow I had talked myself into leaving my raincoat at the crew quarters in Dismal. I stopped at tiny grocery store on the beach, hunting for a poncho and thinking to myself This is going to be so miserable.

It actually wasn’t that bad, like I said, the company was good, the rain slowed to scattered sprinkles, and the firm sand was arguably more comfortable than the couch I had been crashing on. When it sprinkled, I would curl up in my poncho and doze off, listening to the sound of the frogs and the lapping of the ocean just beyond the tallest dune.

Unfortunately, there were no hatchlings that night. I was utterly crestfallen, having spent eight hours sitting in the dark doing nothing instead of sleeping. Near the nests, it’s better to avoid using flashlights without a red acetate film cover, and this combined with the rain made reading out of the question. At 3 am, I was soggy, hungry, and disappointed. I wanted to see baby turtles, I wanted to get them to the shore, and I wanted to do my part for an animal on the threatened species list. As a scientist, I suppose that’s just nature, she doesn’t wait around for you and your schedule, she moves at her own pace, producing perfect little creatures when they’re ready- so maybe that’s why it’s so worthwhile to work with her.