Marguerite Whilden - May 2009
It’s Turtle Time in Talbot
Marguerite Whilden and Jeff Popp
Co-Directors of the Terrapin Institute and Research Consortium, Inc.
Those tiny bursts of white along wooded edges and roadways are reassurance that spring is near. These are the shadbush flowers, and their appearance in late March once signaled the annual return of shad to the Bay. Abundant American shad and its delectable roe became a Lenten favorite in the Maryland Tidewater, but have been off the market for years.
Dogwood blooms offer participants in another famous fishery warning. Striped bass fisherman used to rely on the flowering dogwood tree as an indicator that spawning had occurred and it was “safe” to harvest. A little later in the season when the native locusts are in full bloom, watermen know that the blue crab has had its first of many molts and is now prime for picking.
For the tidewater gardener, there is a lesser-known native wetland plant, known as turtlehead due to the shape of the flower, that blooms in August. When nature goes as planned, turtles of various species begin to hatch in late summer after 60 or so days of incubation in earthen nests. The bloom of the turtlehead plant reminds us to watch out for newborn turtles. The Maryland landscape is amazingly synchronized with those treasured secrets of the Bay.
Perhaps the most captivating of seasonal mileposts are diamondback terrapins. Terrapins are turtles and were among the earliest of American species to be classified. Terrapins are distinct in that they inhabit brackish waters exclusively and are believed to remain in their natal waters or small home range year-round throughout their lifetime. In areas where natural shoreline habitats remain unaltered, terrapins may use the same nest site year after year.
In the Mid-Shore clime along the shoreline and in waterfront gardens it is not unusual to find terrapin hatchlings emerging in late March and April. These little gems are most likely from last year’s nests, in which they’ve hatched from the egg, but stayed in the underground vessel-shaped excavation and overwintered for seven or eight months. Typically, these hatchlings are fully developed with cardboard-thin shells and are desperate to ascend on the first warm day of spring. Sadly, many hatchlings determined to leave the nest at this time may be left vulnerable when the fickle Maryland weather quickly shifts back to winter, leaving the tiny terps exposed and cold-stunned.
After spring has fully set in we become spectators in nature’s most extravagant event. Here in the tidewater, it’s Marsh Madness; all turtle species are on the move again, seeking suitable nesting and forage areas, many times living dangerously in the middle of the road in oblivious pursuit to secure the species. (If it is safe to stop, motorists are urged to move turtles off the road, placing the turtle in the direction in which it was traveling. Be extra careful with snapping turtles, which should be regarded equally as treasured wildlife and moved with aid of a shovel.) As demonstrated in the Tidewater Times article of July 2000, please try to schedule grass mowing to avoid peak nesting times.
Terrapins are a significant part of the tidewater heritage: entire chapters of Maryland law have been dedicated to terrapin conservation; delicacies such as terrapin originated in Crisfield in the late 1800s and proceeded to “spread the fame of the Chesapeake ’round the world,” Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken and Winston Churchill listed terrapin as a favorite dish, the Baltimore Terrapins were a team in the short-lived Federal Baseball League; at the encouragement of Crisfield’s Curly Bird, president of the University of Maryland, the terrapin became a most unusual mascot in 1933; and most recently the diamondback terrapin was declared the State Reptile.
Eventually, as Americans coped with conspicuous consumption, Prohibition, war, and income taxes, the diamondback terrapin slipped off the menu and back into the marshes for a brief respite. According to agency reports, harvests of wild terrapins dropped off significantly in the 1950s as only the diehard tidewater traditionalists continued to serve terrapin.
Unfortunately, by the year 2000 the diamondback was headed for another distinction. Along with sturgeon, sheepshead, and shad, to name a few, the terrapin was headed for commercial extinction. An affluent global market and liberal commercial fisheries regulations put Maryland’s terrapin in the crosshairs of another collapse. When state managers could not be convinced of the pending disaster, advocates persuaded the Maryland legislature to intervene to manage the terrapin harvest.
In 2007, after three years of political angling and a poorly conceived fishery management scheme, Maryland’s revered terrapins were finally taken off the market. (The future of terrapin conservation remains unclear, but conservation news and ways for citizens to advance the cause will be reported here on these pages and at www.terrapininstitute.org.)
Meanwhile, back on the Bay as the waters warm in brackish tributaries, around late April or so, terrapins begin to congregate in bails of twenty to thirty. More often we’ll see just their heads breaking the surface. These may be mating groups, which have emerged a month prior from a long winter’s nap in the bottom mud, typically in water depths of about ten feet in the quieter coves of the tidewater system. The larger heads belong to females, which can weigh about five pounds, and the smaller, snake-like heads are the males, which weigh significantly less, about a pound and a half.
The terrapin spends most of its life in shallow brackish waters and uses land only to nest. The species occurs from New England’s Cape Cod all the way to Texas. Seven sub-species have been classified. The Chesapeake variety is the largest and hardiest. Both male and female terrapins are known to bask at the water’s surface and along the shoreline as a means of jump-starting their metabolisms. In this region terrapins are active March through mid-December and may become trapped in stone revetments, crab pots, fyke nets and other fishing gear and snagged on fishing hooks. Otherwise, terrapins are essentially inactive while tucked away and overwintering in the bottom of the Bay. Oyster dredging, spoil placement operations and marine construction may impact terrapin populations during winter months.
By mid-May, as days lengthen and temperatures rise, we may notice terrapin heads just off shore, surveying for nest areas. If spring is off by a few weeks, expect the terrapins to be also. These animals are highly dependent on temperatures and have been observed surfacing on a warm winter’s day. During a cool spring, typical terrapin behaviors may be delayed until mid-June.
Once things start, look out. Large, lumbering females begin the nest march in late May and continue through mid-July. Nesting females may target the same general nest area year after year. The bulk of the land-based terrapin activity may occur during the first three weeks in June. We’ll see them crossing roads, boat ramps, golf courses, and lawns, determined to find a high, warm spot on land in which to deposit about a dozen eggs.
In lieu of the once vast linear tidewater beaches and sand dunes, driveways and mulch beds are usually warmer and higher than the surrounding landscape. To maternal terrapins gravid with eggs, these high points appear to be the ideal nesting ground. Mulch beds have been known to produce a healthy hatch of an entire clutch; driveways, not so much.
Relocation of terrapin eggs from driveways or high traffic areas to more hospitable nest sites is possible. (The Terrapin Institute can help with the relocation procedure and protecting nests from predators.)
After hatching in August or after overwintering and emerging in March/April, roadside ditches may provide a substitute pathway to the nearest tidal marsh, which hatchlings seem to prefer during their first two or three years.
Patience with these wayward wanderers will be rewarded many fold. Terrapins and other turtle species may appear clumsy, disoriented, and of little utility, but clearly these animals know a thing or two about survival. They are the Iron Man of the animal kingdom, having persisted for over 230 million years on just about every continent. Turtle tips on survival may come in handy for us higher order, more complicated beings.
Terrapins may be a younger turtle species, but they enjoyed these tidal shores long before mankind; their populations flourished with few natural predators; they have withstood near annihilation, recovered, and adapted to major impediments in habitats. Provided we don’t wipe them out altogether, terrapins may prove to be among the few land-based wild species that can actually adapt and cohabitate with us. Turtles in general, and terrapins in particular, may allow us to crack the code on our own medical mysteries, especially in geriatrics and infectious diseases, but only if there are abundant numbers of various turtle species in the wild.
In addition to protecting natural shoreline habitat and helping turtles cross the road, residents are urged to use a by-catch reduction device (BRD) in all crab pots set in shallow waters. By-catch reduction devices have been required since 1999, but the regulatory agencies have been cash strapped and unable to promote the BRD among new tidewater residents. (The Terrapin Institute is available to help with this requirement.)
The Mid-Shore and Talbot County in particular offer some of the best conditions in which to observe terrapins and study the evolving habits of these ancient creatures and many other wildlife interactions. First, there is a relative abundance of terrapins in the Choptank and Miles rivers and Eastern Bay of Talbot County. Second, a substantial degree of naturally occurring tidewater habitat remains intact. Third, and most important, there seems to be an inherent and profound conservation ethic among core residents, which in turn has allowed for a realistic perspective on future growth, sustainability, and restoration. There seems to be a heightened awareness for protecting nature where it naturally exists instead of merely replacing one natural habitat for another and calling it ecological restoration.
For a private conservation organization like the Terrapin Institute and Research Consortium, Inc., this area seems to be the right place to be. Our new permanent research station in the Bay Hundred area puts us closer to our reason to be and among those with similar goals and objectives. The Terrapin Institute plans to be open to visitors on weekends from noon to 4 p.m. and upon request otherwise. The terrapin research station will open officially May 9, when we will celebrate Diamondback Terrapin Day (May 13) and Chesa-Preakness (the Saturday before the Preakness Race). There will also be a terrapin display and crab pot BRD retrofit at the Neavitt Community Flea Market on June 13. If we may help you to learn more about the diamondback terrapin, other turtle species, and ways to preserve the vital tidewater habitats of this area we all love so much, please call the Terrapin Institute at 410-745-8359.
This turtle has taught us to be tolerant and persistent, qualities we wish for in our children and in our friends. Through this species we’ve observed residents new to the area become deeply aware of their footprint and conservation capacity. This species has become the Face of Restoration, and what an adorable face it is.
Sidebar: Terrapins have been selected to illustrate an educational video on climate change for middle school students. A U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service videographer recently visited Talbot County to capture the terrapin in its tidewater splendor; the footage will be available soon on the Internet. Check in later with www.terrapininstitute.org.