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First Piping Plovers, Now Sea Turtles Descend on Cape Hatteras National Seashore


Loggerhead turtles, such as this female, are one of five species of sea turtles found at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. NPS photo by Ben Porter.

Call it serendipity, the fate of the gods, or simple biology, but it seems that Cape Hatteras National Seashore is undergoing an invasion of sea turtles. And that means more beach closures to off-road vehicles and pedestrians.

At last report, there were 111 confirmed nests laid by sea turtles, an increase of about 30 percent above normal, according to biologists with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. And about 70 percent of those nests have yet to hatch.

Under a consent decree reached earlier this year between the National Park Service, the National Audubon Society, and Defenders of Wildlife, the National Park Service can block access to areas of beach with unhatched nests until those nests hatch.

As experienced in 2007 under the Interim Strategy, and again this season, some full beach closures will be implemented as turtle nests approach "day 50" (from the date when the nest was laid) in expectation of hatching. Under the terms of the Consent Decree, beginning September 15, all sea turtle nests that have reached their hatch window at day 50 will result in full beach closures until those particular nests hatch. As of August 21, 2008, there are 111 sea turtle nests on national seashore beaches, of which, 31 nests have hatched.

Now, some closures that had been implemented due to nesting piping plovers, terns, and Oystercatchers are being reopened.

And while a nighttime prohibition on beach driving is still in effect throughout the Seashore from May 1 to November 15 between 10:00 pm until 6:00 a.m., seashore officials are developing a permit to allow night driving between September 16 and November 15.


OMG!!!! What is your problem?!?! Please if you care that much about these so called "Endangered Species" then take them the heck away!!! Let us enjoy the beach while we still can!!! URG!!!!!!!!!!!

And you would be in error.

Check the references at the end of the recovery plans......

Corrected willingly. It should say non peer reviewed science based management policies at work.


There's no such animal as "peer-reviewed" management. You can have peer-reviewed science upon which management decisions are made, which does exist. I'm not sure what good it would do for managers at the Tetons, or Yellowstone to review the management policies at Hatteras anyway.

I reckon it’s a lively debate when just about everybody disagrees with everybody else. And that tends to make picking a starting point a bit difficult when crafting a reply.

Starting at the top with the anonymous comment, “Nice to see that Cape Hatteras is finally doing what it needs to to protect wildlife at the seashore. It's been overrun by 4x4s for far too long” I’ll attempt to make some sense of whats here.

That comment is silly and clearly stems from a lack of understanding of how CHNSRA operates. Once again, someone makes the mistake that orv’s normally enjoy full access to all the beaches. That hasn’t been true for many, many years.

As far as NPS mandates concerning CHNSRA, the primary mission of this park unit is that of a recreational area. And only areas that are not suited for that purpose are to be set aside as primative wilderness. Any derogation from that primary mission is in direct violation of congressional law and only congress can change the nature of the park. Had congress desired CHNSRA to become a wilderness area, nature preserve etc…they would have done so as they crafted the Wilderness Act.

What makes managing access and wildlife at CHNSRA so difficult is an extrordinary lack of standard protocols and peer reviewed science. Peer reviewed science is required by USFW and USGS to support management policy. And yet, the policys enacted under the consent decree and even the Interim Management Strategy are unsupported and constitute opinion rather than fact. They also, as I pointed out earlier, are in direct conflict with congressional law. Whether you want to discuss birds or turtles, management policy differs everywhere depending on who happens to be calling the shots at the moment. Those that claim that “preservation of the unique flora and fauna or the physiographic conditions now prevailing in this area… ” as their rallying cry are strangely silent when the point is made that no plovers were documented at the seashore untill 1960. Nor do we hear a complaint when the destruction of over 90 acres of highly successful bird habitat that was destroyed at CHNSRA is discussed. This occured during the tenure of Larry Belli as park superintendant.

With the turtles we again see mixed, non peer reviewed management policies at work. We also have a shining example of just how misunderstood these magnificant creatures are.

Turtle nests, as has been stated by a different “Anonymous” are in fact moved at CHNSRA. However, they are never moved to provide access for ORV’s. Nest safety in terms of overwash and erosion are the driving factors in relocation, not beach users. The problem is NPS doesn’t take in to account local knowledge in making that determination. Nor do they move all of the nests that will overwash or erode. Currently, there are two nests by Ramp 44 that have been overwashed repetedly at the tide for over a week. One is within it’s hatch window and the other is just days away. The issue here is that at this late stage of development, the turtles need a lot of oxygen that permiates the shell membrane, their little air bubble being largely gone. Matthew Godfrey, a NCWRC turtle biologist, explained to me that even a heavy rain can drown a nest at this stage.

The silt cloth in place for days is an issue also. It does funnel the water and sand to the nest. It has yet another unintended consequence in that Ghost crabs get trapped within that barrier and burrow. This has resulted in predation of the nest. Ironically, ORV’s limit Ghost crab numbers which benefits turtle and bird alike. Eliminating one of the primary Ghost crab predators, the racoon, by the hundreds, has resulted in an explosion of these voracious feeders. At the silt fence enclosed nest just south of Ramp 44, I counted with my binoculars, over 40 crab burrows within the closure. Those were all I could count contained within the silt fence to the fall of the beach toward the sea. Assuming the crabs havn’t found the nest yet, any hatchling emerging from that nest will have to run a gauntlet of 40 plus crabs just to begin it’s journey to the Gulf Stream. And this year, finding crab burrows with almost four inch diameters has been common place. Those of us that notice such things have been awed by this phenomenon. Obvioulsy, lack of predation and draconian ORV restrictions have done the crab well. Bear in mind that these crabs are the number one unfledged bird predator at CHNSRA and usually mark the primary reason of chick mortality.

Nobody knows just how many turtles there are. And nobody knows the true mortality rate from hatchling to sexual maturity which is thought to be around 20 years. The argument that the Atlantic population is threatened is based primarily in a decline in turtle nesting in Florida. Last year there were only just over 45,000 nests, down from the year before. But that’s not a fair figure as turtles don’t breed every year. On average that happens only once every three years with each turtle laying an average of five to seven nests per season. This year was a record year throughout the East Coast, with one notable exception; Cape Lookout National Seashore, CALO for short.

Research and public record amassed by NPS at CHNSRA and thoroughly compiled by a friend of mine shows that for over a decade, on average, CHNSRA lost about 45% of its turtle nests. The two factors involved have been erosion/drowning and predation. But not ORV traffic. The average nest containing 112 eggs, the math works out to tens of thousands of eggs lost.

Much ado has been made about the effects of night driving. I’ll have to agree with Anonymous and say that a trucks lights behind the nest can disorient the hatchlings. Of course that assumes that the ORV in question is actually parked behind the nest or otherwise remains stationary for an extended period. With all due respect, the only time Ive seen lights shining on turtles at CHNSRA involved “turtle people” wanting a photo such as the one within this article. Anyone truly familiar with CHNSRA knows that night driving has always been at a minimum. Stand on this sand long enough and you will begin to notice folks leave in two waves as evening approaches. One is dinner and the other darkness. Leaving only a handfull of vehicles on the beach. And we’re not driving between hatch window nests and the water; day or night. A passing vehicle will have little effect on turtle orientation especially as turtles cant see red, rendering tail lights moot.

The origional window for moving a nest is nine hours because of the dynamics involving an air bubble and a hatchling. Rotating the egg after this period will cause the turtle to drown. It’s not until about day 20 that sex is determined by nest temprature. So, in fact, there is a larger window for nest relocation. But rather than just increasing nest relocation, NPS should adopt the same management policy as is practiced at PINWR. There vounteers monitor the nests from dusk to midnight. A small garden border fence is unrolled and placed around the nest and continued to the sea. The sand in that narrow pathway is raked down to eliminate obstruction. If no turtles emerge, the fence is removed and a cage is placed over the nest which is inspected at dawn for any hatchlings. If found they will be released the following night to minimize predation. This practice funnels neither water or sand to the nest and doesn’t trap Ghost crabs.

Whats astounding is the CALO report for this year as it flies in the face of “environmentalist” reasoning. Particularly because CALO doesn’t have the piers, the villages, the ORV traffic, night driving ( when the CD allows) etc. that CHNSRA has. And yet without the illegal draconian restrictions placed upon the users of CHNSRA, their bird and turtle numbers are in the pits!
These results clearly demonstrate how little impact ORV and pedestrian users truly have. Storms cannot be blamed as we have had only one of note this year, so far.

The CALO numbers:

Seashore Sea Turtle Nesting Activity to date: Nests are hatching now.

North Core Banks- 93 activities, 35 nests, 4 digs*, 54 crawls
South Core Banks- 103 activities, 54 nests, 2 digs, 47 crawls
Shackleford Banks- 26 activities, 18 nests, 1 digs, 7 crawls

Seashore Total- 222 activities, 107 nests, 7 digs, 108 crawls

*digs are likely nests, but eggs were not found, will be investigated during and after hatch window

Sea Beach Amaranth:

North Core Banks- 0 plants
South Core Banks- 0 plants
Shackleford Banks- 76 plants

Piping Plover Summary: Preliminary Seashore results; 46 pairs, 57 nests, and 9

South Core Banks- 22 pairs, 29 nests, 7 fledglings
Ophelia Island- 2 pairs, 3 nests, 0 fledglings
Middle Core Banks- 6 pairs, 8 nests, 0 fledglings
North Core Banks- 16 pairs (2 singles), 17 nests, 2 fledglings
Shackleford Banks- 0 pair

American Oystercatcher Summary: Preliminary Seashore results; 62 pairs, 91 nests,
and 15 fledglings

South Core Banks- 24 pairs, 44 nests, 5 fledglings
Ophelia Island- 2 pairs, 2 nests, 0 fledglings
Middle Core Banks- 7 pairs, 6 nests, 7 fledglings
North Core Banks- 18 pairs, 22 nests, 3 fledglings
Shackleford Banks- 11 pairs, 17 nests, 0 fledglings

Colonial Waterbird Nesters:

South Core Banks- Five colonies
North Core Banks- Seven colonies, Old Drum Inlet still a few skimmer
chicks/fledglings on the soundside.
Middle Core Banks- Five colonies

Ok, once again, CALO doesn’t have the piers, the villages, the ORV traffic, night driving (when the CD allows) etc. that CHNSRA has.

But false crawls are equal to the number of nests.

56 Plover nests and only two more birds than were fledged from the 13 nests at CHNSRA.

The LETE, AMOY and Skimmer numbers are dismal as well. But none of this is due to ORV use at CALO. And none of it can be documented at CHNSRA.

There is no reason to believe that ORV users, which are comprised of a collection entirely of road legal, licensed trucks and wildlife cannot co-exist. But what’s also true is that I and many other pro access advocates promote the restoration of habitat destroyed and the creation of additional habitat soundside. This has proven succesful and is something that needs persued.
To appreciate just how redily that nature dictates the shape and features of this place one must take the time to understand how things work(normally) at CHNSRA. To do that you must come here and spend the time to appreciate just how dynamic this environment really is.


You are correct this is "Sad stuff".
You said " I live in California and we keep motorized vehicles off most of our beaches, Go read a book about sea turtles- we've just about wiped them out, and we do not know what the effect of that will be." So you dont allow vehicles on the beaches which are vastly different from our beaches here on the right coast. There really is no access to the beaches on Hatteras if you dont have an ORV or cottage rental on the beach.
By not allowing vehicles on the beach out there have you seen the turtle population rebound?
We seem to have an abundance of turtles here in the Chesapeake Bay. I see them almost everytime I go out on my boat 1-2 times a week. Im all for conservation of wildlife. The problem I have is people are willing to help but certain enviro org dont seem to want any help other than a donation!. Will money save or help with the turtle population if you have free volunteers working together? I dont think so. If it were really about the wildlife things would be done differently. I dont drive my ORV on Hatteras by choice but the crap that is being forced upon our so called free society is just that crap. The Interim Plan was a step in the right direction but without DOW and Audobon sueing how are they suppose to support theirselves. They need to make their payroll from somewhere and under the consent decree they did just that. Made their PAYROLL! You and I are paying their fees. Its all about the Money with them. You being from California and not knowing the geological layout of Hatteras yet commenting about ORV is tellng me alot about your views. Gay marriage is legal out there isn't it? You didnt hear me commenting on what happens in your state did you?

Such short sightedness.

Anon Ex-CAHA employee,

Thanks for pointing out the errors in my data. I’m certainly not an expert, but have become much more learned in these matters since April 30th of this year. As I've said before, the only benefit of the CD that I've truly seen so far is the knowledge that we have collectively gained about the species in question. Comments from on-the-ground folks like yourself help us all to learn more about this subject. Spirited debate such as this is also fruitful to all in that it is a great form of “Brainstorming”, where all ideas and opinions have merit.

Perhaps my time quotes necessary for raking nests are understated. However, my comments were not directed at raking every single nest out there, for that would be a daunting and probably impossible task. Rather, I was referring to only the nests that are adjacent to ramps/blocking through access from ramp to another, or are in high predation areas. While I respect your time and observations as an NPS Biotech, I would still very much like to see this theory tested. I’m not exaggerating about civilians wanting to volunteer their help, either. I still like to see theories scientifically tested and proven to either pass or fail, and not discarded off-hand.

Pursuant to the nests moved in PINWR versus CHNSRA, do I understand your comments to mean that PI is part of the DOA/USFS? I also comprehend that there are different protocols, procedures, etc. between the two bureaus. However, if we are talking simply about species conservation coupled with the plausibility of relocating turtle nests, ignoring which dept. of government that they report to, I still can’t see why it is done one place and not the other. EX: If a turtle nest in area A is moved for reason B, under gov’t. banner C, then I see no reason why a nest in area X cannot be moved for reason Y under banner Z. The hatchlings do not know the difference, and the risks are identical.

Yes, I would like nothing more than to see a better survival ration than 1:3000. As a PADI certified Divemaster, I have been lucky enough to encounter these intriguing and beautiful creatures on many occasions while on wreck dives off the Hatteras coast. They are truly a marvel to see while swimming, as their massive bulk is not a detriment to their movements in the underwater environment. I certainly wish them nothing but the best chances for survival.

However, I would pose this question to you: If moving only some of the nests and introducing the already proven technique of artificial incubation would produce better results than on-beach measures, would you give THAT a chance?

Sea turtles are indead protected under the endangered species act. You can check out the status of each species here:
Everyone is intitled to their opinion, but please, give the right facts. Pea Island is administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service, not the NPS or Cape Hatteras NS. For years, the number of nests moved in Pea Island has raised concerns but they are usually moved because of possible loss. In the seashore, trained staff are allowed to move nests when the same conditions exist. Under previous superintendents, some nests were moved after pressure was brought to bear from ORV access groups because the nest location would cause a full beach closure.
Putting up the filter fence, which blocks light from houses, beach fires, and ORVs, framing the nest, expanding the enclosure all takes several hours. Volunteers are not the answer all the time. Cape Hatteras lost it's full time volunteer coordinator in the summer of 2006 and this position has not been replaced. At the time, the coordinator was based in the seashore and worked with the schools, community groups, and interested parties to encourage resource stewardship, help train volunteers, id projects, etc. Now, the volunteer program is managed by the chief of interpretation which is based 70 + miles away in Manteo and there is no full time coordinator. Do you really think the Chief of Interpretation really has time to put into a volunteer program? I wouldn't blame the superintendent for not wanting community volunteers--there is no one to train and oversee them.

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