She Sure Knows The Seashore
She may not sell seashells by the seashore, but Brenda Bossman is the one to see if you’re interested in Southwest Florida’s shore life. She’s an independent consultant who, for years now, has worked with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Charlotte County, Lee County and others to help save our Florida shorebirds and sea turtles.
A transplant from Ohio in 1987, she has come by her passion and expertise “naturally,” if you’ll pardon the expression. “I was always a nature lover,” she says. “When I was young I spent a lot of time in parks and watched birds. That was my number one passion. I remember that even as a little girl, I would spend my summers at my grandparents’ house in Indiana. My grandfather was a farmer, and he would take me on his tractor and hold me on his lap, and I would watch for bird nests and rabbit nests along the field. When I would spot one, he’d stop everything, get me down off the tractor and let me move that nest so he didn‘t run over it. So I’ve always loved domestic animals–but I love the wild animals even more.”
She also liked economics, and her mother encouraged her to explore the business world, “so I ended up taking her advice,” Brenda says. She’s held positions in banking, real estate sales and radio broadcasting. “It was all very good, but it just didn’t hold my passion, and that’s when I moved to Florida,” she confesses. She started out on Don Pedro island, and that was fortuitous for two reasons: On the ferry to the island, she met Brad Bossman, who later became her husband. It was also there that she learned about sea turtles.
“When I got to settle in on Don Pedro, I just loved the bird life, the turtles, the fish. And when I found out about the turtle patrol program, I was ready and willing to get started the next spring as a volunteer,” she says. She immersed herself in learning, talking with the scientists involved in research projects and interacting with the folks at FWC. “They probably got really tired of my asking so many questions, but I just wanted to know everything about birds and turtles, especially.”
And learn she did. By 1994, Brenda was an independent consultant and had projects of her own on the local shores. It’s not that she makes proposals to the agencies involved. “If the project is on my beach, it automatically comes to me because I am an experienced permit holder and know what I’m doing,” she says. For a typical project monitoring turtle hatchings, she will find and train the volunteers, do all the weekly planning, make sure all the equipment and supplies are purchased, lease a vehicle to use on the beach, lead the daily monitoring of turtle nests, paint and put in the stakes and signs that mark the nests, and collect and report the data to the FWC.
Her day starts early. “I’m up at five in the morning, and we’re out on the beach at sunrise. We have to have our nest evaluation data completed by 9:00 a.m., and other data collected before we leave,” she points out. What data? The number of hatchlings in the nest, whether they’re loggerheads, Kemp’s ridleys or green turtle eggs, the distance of the nest from the dunes and from the mean high water mark, any signs of predator attacks on the nest and what kind of predator it most likely was. “We record if it was washed over or inundated. After we see the hatchlings’ tracks leaving the nest, we wait three days to give all the hatchlings time to get out on their own, and then we excavate the nest. We count how many eggs are hatched and unhatched, how many live hatchlings are still in the nest and how many dead ones. If we find any live hatchlings, we release them immediately.”
The hatchlings don’t have an easy time of it, by any means. “They have to make it out of the nest, and it takes them, all crawling together, about three days. Some of them are two or three feet down at the bottom. Their little bodies are wriggling around, and the sand is shifting under them. They need a group effort to bring them up to the surface.” There are usually about 100 eggs in a loggerhead turtle nest, and while most of them get out of the nest, not all will make it to the water. Impeding their way are predators such as crabs, night herons, raccoons, armadillos and coyotes.
Another problem is the humans in the area. Sea turtle hatchlings instinctively go toward the sea, guided by moonlight and starlight. But lights left on after dark by humans can confuse them, drawing them landward, and they will fall victim to dehydration or predation. A greater human vice is carelessness, which is life-threatening for adult turtles. “You should see how much plastic we pick up on the beaches every day,” Brenda says. “After a storm the whole back of our UTV will be filled with plastic. And the turtles will mistake a plastic bag for food. Eating it blocks their digestive tract and they’ll die.”
If the hatchlings are lucky enough to make it to the Gulf’s waters, “these tiny creatures have to swim and swim and swim, three or four miles out,” Brenda says, and they have many more predators looking for a juicy meal. “Only about one in a thousand will make it to maturity, old enough to reproduce.” Those sea turtles can measure up to 5 feet long and weigh 500 lbs. or more. The females don’t necessarily return to the same areas where they were born, and when they arrive at the shore some 20 to 25 years later, they may lay eggs in four to seven nests in a hatching season that runs from about May 1 to October 1.
And then there are the shorebirds. “I love turtles, and I’ve spent a long time protecting them, but I’m more concerned about the shorebirds, to be honest,” Brenda says. “Every year, with sea level rising, I notice that the waves come up higher on the beach, and those birds nest right on the beach. They’re much more likely to get their nests washed away. Then there are the predators: armadillos and coyotes and crows now. Since I’ve been down here I’ve noticed a huge increase in the number of crows, and they are smart. They’ll wait until the adult tern or plover leaves its shallow nest–maybe to distract another predator away from the nest–and those crows will grab the eggs or chicks.”
Dogs are a big problem for the shorebirds, whether they’re leashed or not. “When a little snowy plover sees a dog, it sees a predator,” Brenda says. “It doesn’t know that the dog is on a leash. The plover wants to save its nest, so it does its instinctive thing, which is jump off the nest and flop around like it has a broken wing to draw the dog away from the nest. But another predator is just waiting to jump on the momentarily abandoned nest. It’s heartbreaking: Either the water comes in and washes away the nest, or the predators get the eggs or hatchlings, and not many are making it.”
Earlier this year, Brenda worked on a project which she describes as “counterintuitive,” in that she’s doing the exact opposite of what you’d expect of a shorebird lover. It was a shorebird abatement program for areas that were going to be replenished with sand. “What I had to do was discourage the shorebirds from nesting on the beach where sand was to be placed, because their nests would not survive. There would be equipment all over the beach, and sand mixed with water being piped in under high pressure. You just couldn’t have animals nesting there, birds especially. So I had to get them to go elsewhere, and then, after the sand was placed, they’d be welcome to come back to a nice new beach.” That’s the part Brenda loves.
She’s been doing her good work for 33 years now. Is it time to retire? “I don’t know if I could,” she says. “I’m just too active. I don’t have any aches or pains, and I want to keep moving as long as I can.” Just like the turtles and shorebirds she’s been protecting for all these years.
Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: email@example.com. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person’s background.