Turtles nested on Sullivan’s Island in record numbers, coyotes noticed

Paw prints and egg shells were found scattered around this sea turtle nest on Sullivan’s Island, and coyotes are suspected to have dug it up.

Sullivan’s Island has had a record number of sea turtles lay nests on its beach this year, and so has the state of South Carolina, but volunteer turtle team members have had to once again take steps to keep coyotes away.

“We were hoping that it would not be a problem, but it was,” said Mary Pringle, the project leader for the island turtle team, a group of volunteers that watches over and records turtle nesting activity on Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms.

On July 24, volunteers found a hole surrounded by egg shells and paw prints in the brush of the maritime forest at Station 13. It seemed coyotes had gotten to a freshly laid nest the night before and gobbled up the eggs before volunteers found it.

Then on Monday, two sea turtle nests on a dune near the Sand Dunes Club between Stations 16 and 17 were found dug up on the island, surrounded by egg shells and paw prints, with coyotes once again the primary suspects.

Michelle Pate, the Department of Natural Resource’s sea turtle program coordinator, said the paw prints are what give the coyotes away, along with the way they dig. They fling dirt and shells behind them whereas raccoons, which are also known to sometimes dig up turtle nests, place the debris around them as they dig.

“It’s the style of how they do it,” she said. “They did like any canine.”

She said it’s unlikely that a loose dog was responsible.

“We’ve really never had any record I know of a domestic dog digging up a nest.”

The hatchlings had already left the nests by the time the animals got there, so Pringle said it seems they got away, and volunteers reburied the egg shells.

The coyotes returned Tuesday, likely attracted by the scent of the empty turtle shells, and dug up the nests again. Per the instruction of the DNR, the turtle team put the remaining empty shells in trash bags and removed them from the beach.

The turtle team is taking other measures to protect nests from coyotes too. They are in the process of placing heavy mesh screens secured with stakes over the remaining nests, in addition to sprinkling them with granulated wolf urine and putting up noise-making tape that rattles in the breeze around them. The turtles cannot go through the mesh, so it cannot be placed over some nests that are close to emerging.

The turtle team had trouble with coyotes last year as well. Late last June, what appeared to be a group of four coyotes dug up a nest at Station 26 on Sullivan’s Island, leaving just 24 of 120 eggs unbroken. In response, volunteers covered the nests with a 4-foot by 4-foot piece of mesh and placed flags around them that snap in the wind.

In February, one Sullivan’s Island resident told town council that a coyote or coyotes had attacked and killed his family’s dog. While it could not be proved whether coyotes were responsible for the attack, it ultimately led council in March to decide to hire a trapper, which put out leg-hold traps and caught two animals in 21 days of trapping.

The Department of Natural Resources cautions that killing coyotes is not likely to get rid of them permanently because when a coyote is killed, another will simply take its place.

“That’s just not the solution,” Pringle said.

And, she said, while it’s a disappointment whenever a nest is lost, it’s far from disaster.

“That’s why these turtles lay hundreds of eggs,” she said, and they lay eggs about four times a season.

This has also been a particularly good year for turtles nesting on Sullivan’s Island and South Carolina beaches. Sullivan’s Island had a record 15 nests, compared to the previous high of 13 in 1998. Statewide, the nest count was just over 6,100 Friday morning, far surpassing the previous record of 5,198 in 2013.

This is the third record-setting season out of the last four years, according to the DNR, and with similar record nest numbers in recent years in nearby states like Georgia and Florida, DNR biologists are cautiously optimistic that global conservation efforts have helped put the loggerhead, the most common sea turtle in South Carolina, on track for recovery.

Sea turtles will continue to nest until about mid-August, meaning the number could still tick up.

On Isle of Palms, Pringle said there are currently 26 nests, which is about average.

“It’s been a pretty normal year,” she said. “We’ve been very busy, and that’s good.”

The turtle team does more than just collect data for the DNR by taking inventory of nests, hatch rates and false crawls. Their work also includes relocating eggs that are in danger from the tides or to better dunes and taking steps to protect them from threats like the coyotes.

The number of nests on East Cooper’s barrier islands pales in comparison to other nesting spots in the state. The Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge averages 1,000 loggerhead nests a year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But the comparatively low number of nests on the island allows the team to keep a close eye on them.

“We’re able to pay attention to each nest and protect it,” Pringle said.