The Golden Isles during the summer becomes a much sought-after destination for thousands of tourists.
During that same time, though, Georgia’s beaches become nesting grounds for sea turtles and shorebirds. Beach visitors can easily disturb the nests and affect the delicate natural process.
The St. Simons Island Sea Turtle Project helps lead nest protection efforts on the island. The group has expanded those efforts this year with an educational campaign meant to be seen by visitors to the island and local residents.
“There’s very simple steps the public can take to protect the sea turtles and the shorebirds in their nests,” said Catherine Ridley, who manages the St. Simons Island Sea Turtle Project, one of several partners in this educational campaign.
The goal of the campaign is to blanket the island with information, shared through new signage at beach access points, door-to-door canvassing and informational tabletents displayed by local businesses.
The effort is supported by a grant that has funded the purchase of the signage, posters and informational tabletents, which volunteers hope to give to as many local businesses as possible.
“We’d love to get them these materials, to put in their storefronts,” Ridley said. “But the tabletents are designed to go on every table in a restaurant or every hotel room. And we have enough that we can keep them replenished throughout the summer.”
Loggerhead sea turtles visit Georgia’s beaches to lay their eggs in the sand each summer. Migratory shorebirds use the beaches as a nursery during the summer months as well.
Nesting season is from May to August. This year’s turtle nesting season has had a promising start, and Ridley said she hopes to see high nesting numbers before the season ends.
“It’s a really busy start to the season, I think, statewide,” she said. “We’re seeing a potentially record-setting pace … It looks like it’s going to be an amazing year for loggerhead nesting.”
Turtles nest all along St. Simons’ beaches. Shorebirds also flock to specific parts of the beaches that are best for nesting. Georgia’s barrier islands were designated by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network in 2017 as a landscape of hemispheric importance, due to the number of birds supported by local habitats throughout the year.
“My hope was to help highlight the importance of Gould’s Inlet particularly on St. Simons as one of the most easily accessible public beaches that also serves as very important shorebird habitat for nesting, which is happening right now, and then also during migration in winter,” said Abby Sterling, a shorebird biologist who has helped with the educational campaign and aids in nesting protection locally.
The beach signs are in the process of being installed now. The signs are placed on the boardwalk at Gould’s Inlet and beach accesses at the Coast Guard Station, Massengale Park and Myrtle Street. A second sign celebrating the WHSRN designation has also been installed at Gould’s Inlet.
All information being shared in this campaign includes ways to protect nests. Simple steps include turning out lights on the beach and closing the shades of beach-facing windows, filling in sand castles, keeping dogs on leashes and discarding chairs, tents and trash used on the beach.
“Now is the time that we really want people to be involved,” Ridley said.
Most people are happy to take these precautionary steps, Ridley said, once they’re aware of the importance these steps can have for local wildlife. The campaign this summer aims to make them aware.
“It’s a big communitywide initiative that’s taken a lot of planning,” Ridley said. “We’re really excited to unveil it to the public. We hope they will get involved and take time to read the materials and make it a part of their routines.”
Raised awareness will help residents and visitors take ownership and feel proud of this special area, Sterling said.
“People come here because it’s special,” she said. “There’s not many places where you have a publicly accessible beach where you can see natural phenomenon happening, like sea turtles nesting and these shorebirds.”
Anyone with questions or business owners interested in sharing the information cards can contact Ridley by emailing Catherine@onehundredmiles.org or calling 912-264-4111. She also encourages people to visit Facebook.com/SSITurtles and GAShorebird.com.
Sterling will also soon lead an educational beach walk through which participants can learn more about shorebird nesting. The walk will take place June 20 at 6:30 p.m. at Gould’s Inlet.