It seems like Mother Nature can't make up its mind ever since the Earth Day Nor'easter on April 22. Some days are cloudy, raw, and rainy; and still feel in the cold lap of early spring. Other days are sunny, warm, and summer-like; and everything seems to be growing and alive.
It was on one of those bright sunny days last week, with temperatures in the 70s that I found myself having an encounter with two baby Diamondback terrapin turtles. The sun was out, the sky was blue and I had to walk the bayside beach along Sandy Hook Bay to see if anything interesting was taking place during the warmest part of the day.
Sure enough, not far from the parking lot, I spotted a few young Diamondback terrapins about ready to cross a road to get to the other side, which in this case was a tidal wetland near Pews Creek in Port Monmouth, NJ. These little terrapins must have been hatchlings. Their shell was still soft and they were only about the size of a quarter.
Despite their diminutive dimensions, the markings on the shell were still extraordinary and distinguishing of a Diamondback. Deep diamond -like spherical patterns on each individual scute (plate) located on their top gray to black shell. The little critters even had miniature webbed feet with claws. So adorable with their big baby eyes looking right at me!
Besides what else could they be. Diamondback terrapins are the only turtle species in North America that lives in estuarine waters, including Lower New York Bay. Snapping turtles live mostly in freshwater.
At this time of year, newly-emerged terrapin hatchlings can be found wandering around on land to a safe location in a marsh. Their mother most likely laid a clutch of 8-12 eggs sometime between May to mid-July in the sandy beach area above the high tide line. While most hatchlings emerge in August or September, it is not uncommon for some young to remain in the nest to overwinter. They then emerge the next spring to head out on a big journey to find the nearest body of shallow water to feed, sleep, and mature.
That's what these little terrapins were trying to do. All would be good, except between their nesting site near the sandy dunes of the bay and the tidal wetlands of Pew Creek was a busy road with fast-moving cars that more often than not would never stop or even slow down for a few small, slow moving turtles. The little hatchlings could forget any help from their mother. The babys emerge completely on their own. Such is the strain and trauma of newborn terrapins near New York Harbor. It is not easy!
According to Barbara Brennessel in her terrific book about Diamondback Terrapins entitled, Diamonds in the Marsh, some field studies have shown that only one out of five hatchlings survive their journey from the nest site to a safe location within a marsh. Other studies have revealed that only 1% to 3% of the eggs laid produce a hatchling, and the number of hatchlings that survive to adulthood is believed to be similarly low.
Even back in the late 1800s to early 1900s, the life of a terrapin was not trouble-free. Many Diamondbacks were being caught by people to make turtle soup. It was a popular delicacy, and they were the main ingredient.
While today the harvest of terrapins is closely regulated in both New York and New Jersey, Diamondback terrapins continue to struggle with predation from gulls, crows and Norway rats, water pollution, and the loss of nesting habitat from the development of buildings and roads near the coast where females lay eggs. Some adult terrapins even have been known to drown in commercial and recreational crab pots. Terrapins do not have gills (they are not fish), and need to come up from the water to take a breath of air every now and then.
It also takes awhile for terrapins to mature. Males reach maturity at 5-8 years in age, while females do not reach sexual maturity until they are approximately 9-10 years in age. The sex of hatchlings is determined by the temperature of the soil, the warmer the soil, the more females that are produced.
So what could I do. Finding these hatchlings was a clear sign that at least some of mom's hard work got past the raccoons and other predators. I had one obvious choice. Do nothing and let Mother Nature decide if they should live or die, or I could do something.
Picking them up one by one, I took the little terrapins across the road and along the edge of Pews Creek to be in this world. It is tough enough living near New York City not to give them at least a fighting chance.
Of course, I didn't get much in the way of thanks. The little critters immediately headed for the tall vegetation near the creek, which should help to provide some cover and protection from predators. Good instincts! Their mother should be proud.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/