By John Hanson
Excited and equipped with my survey sheets, binoculars, and a pair of water boots, I was ready to venture out to the Diamondback Terrapin Survey sites I had volunteered for. It would be my first time surveying, on Tuesday, May 25, at 2 p.m., but the weather had different plans. The sky was mostly overcast and wind speeds at the Indian River Station were recording 16 mph winds, so I had to cancel the survey for that day. It was a good reminder that we wouldn’t be able to conduct our surveys every day or every time slot within the allowed three-week period.
Once on site, I took my binoculars and swept the water in front of me from left to right, looking for tiny terrapin heads sticking out of the water. If the wind kicked up, it became harder to spot them in the waves. Once I spotted one, though, there was no doubt what I was looking at: a tiny reptile head attached to a uniquely designed body often invisible in the water’s dark surface. It was very exciting to see them swimming in their natural habitat. After the first sweep, I repeated the same process over again twice at five-minute intervals. After each sweep, I recorded the number of terrapins that I saw. The entire process took 30-40 minutes at each site and then I was off to the next site.
I initially signed up for two survey sites, which were the closest ones to my home in Lewes, and they were easy to access. One was at a small beach just on the other side of the 17th tee box at the Rehoboth Beach Country Club. I parked, walked over the tee box to the opposite side, and down to the beach. Amazingly, I never encountered any golfers getting ready to tee off.
My second location was the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control boat launch area at the end of Mulberry Knoll Road off of Route 24 in Rehoboth Beach. A dirt road led me to a point right where Love Creek enters the Rehoboth Bay. I was glad I had my boots, because from the road to the point where the surveys were, there were deep ruts and holes that were typically filled with water. This was the most interesting site for me, and I even had the chance to rescue four horseshoe crabs that had been stranded in the water holes on the dirt road after a storm and a high tide. I also spotted two baby painted turtles crossing the gravel road on the way to the site, and was able to get them off the road so they didn’t get run over!
Later on in the survey, I traded the Rehoboth Country Club site for one at the Pot Nets Community Beach, so that we could collect some data from there. I was able to do a few there right on the beach, where there were even some swimmers in the water. But the turtles I saw really didn’t seem to be bothered by the humans splashing nearby.
In addition to being a volunteer with the Center’s citizen science program, I am also in training to become a Delaware Master Naturalist. As part of that training, I volunteered to work with the Center to learn as much as possible about the Delaware Inland Bays’ animals, plants, habitats, and ecosystems. Also, I have previously served as a volunteer with the Center, conducting fish surveys one summer. I am grateful that the Center has agreed to sponsor me as a volunteer within the Delaware Master Naturalist training program!
The Center has such a wide variety of citizen science volunteer programs that it was difficult for me to choose where to concentrate my volunteer efforts. I became interested in learning more about diamondback terrapins because I knew so little about them. My only knowledge of terrapins came from the University of Maryland – College Park Campus, which honors the diamondback terrapin as its mascot. I also knew that this particular turtle’s name comes from the unique diamond-shaped designs on its shell. So, I figured that if I was going to spend time looking for these creatures, I had better find out more about them.
Thanks to research from a variety of online resources, including the Center’s newsletters, I found out some really fun facts about this aquatic animal, including their unique preference for brackish waters. I also learned that diamondback terrapins actively breed in the spring, after which the females migrate to lay their eggs in the sandy areas and dunes along shorelines of places like the Inland Bays. This active period is the ideal time to observe and survey them, which is just what we did through one of the Center’s newest survey efforts.
The Center’s ever-informative Project Manager, Nivette Perez-Perez, trained us virtually for what to expect during the survey that took place during a three-week period beginning May 25, 2021, and ending June 14, 2021. The surveys had to be conducted during daylight hours under very specific weather conditions (the air temperature had to be above 50 degrees, cloud cover less than 50 percent, and wind speeds under 8 mph – the perfect summer weather and terrapin basking conditions!). The survey included volunteers like me counting basking turtles from 21 different land-based and water-based sites using kayaks. In order to keep track of the weather conditions each day, we used the Delaware Environmental Observing System (DEOS) maintained by the University of Delaware. DEOS is a wonderful public resource that reports the weather conditions from a number of monitoring stations located around the state and is available to anyone online.
In addition to the weather restrictions, all surveys had to be conducted within two hours of the low tide each day because this was when the terrapins would most likely be close to the shoreline and more easily observable. I chose to monitor two land-based survey sites: at the Rehoboth Country Club and lower Love Creek, which are both located in Rehoboth Bay and were the closest to where I live. Later I added a third survey site located in the Pot Nets Community also located on Rehoboth Bay.
There were many volunteers involved in this effort, so coordination was needed. Bill MacLachlan, a fellow Delaware Master Naturalist trainee, graciously stepped up to keep us all organized and on task. He shared important information daily, including general weather updates, and provided us all with encouragement. He did a marvelous job!
All in all, the volunteers conducted over 100 surveys and spotted more than 1,100 diamondback terrapins! Using that data, the Center can begin to get a picture of whether or not the populations are increasing, decreasing, or remaining stable.
At the University of Maryland – College Park, they have a saying: “Fear the Turtle.” But terrapins are not to be feared. They are gentle creatures that should be respected, protected, and preserved. The Center is aiming to do just that through a variety of programs, including efforts to prevent nesting females from crossing a busy Coastal Highway to lay their eggs with fencing efforts and terrapin garden nesting sites, built with the help of volunteers. I highly recommend that if you enjoy being outdoors, volunteering for a committed and effective organization, and want to do your part to protect and preserve our natural surroundings, that you seriously consider volunteering with the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays. If you do, you will find a whole new world out there that is full of fun adventures! Learn more and sign up today at inlandbays.org/volunteer.