Something must be working well. This summer I have been seeing numerous Northern Diamondback Terrapins alive and well either sauntering or swimming around the northern coastal region of Monmouth County, NJ, from the Navesink River to Matawan Creek in Cliffwood Beach, downstream from the busy streets of New York City.
This is big news to me. As a kid growing up near the beach in the 70s and 80s it was extremely rare just to catch a glimpse of one terrapin. Now to have the opportunity to watch more than a few is downright exciting.
Diamondback Terrapins are amazing little water turtles. They are the only turtle species in North America to live exclusively in brackish water (a mixture of fresh and salt water). They can be found in coastal marshes, tidal creeks, estuaries, bays and coves. No other turtle along the East Coast and Gulf Coast of the U.S can live in these shallow tidal waters. Terrapins spend their entire life influenced by tides.
Historically, Diamondbacks were only rarely seen in the summer months when females searched for nest sites, often along the sandy shoulders of out-of-the-way coastal roads, and when juveniles crossed a road or parking lot to access ditches or estuarine creeks. Terrapins sightings were for the most part uncommon, because the population fell to dangerously low levels in the early 1900s after a long period of large-scale harvesting for their meat and extensive habitat loss from coastal development.
The tide seems to be slowly turning now. Just the other day, I was kayaking in Claypit Creek, a tributary of the Navesink River near the Oceanic Bridge, during high tide. After paddling a bit I started to see what looked like six dinner plates on a branch surfacing out of the water. Paddling closer, the plates in fact turned out to be half-a-dozen Diamondback Terrapins basking in the warm sunlight.. They all had polka-dot skin with diamond -like circular patterns on their scutes situated on top of their gray to brownish-black shells.
Paddling closer to get a better look and trying to take a few pictures, they regrettably all jumped back into the water just as I got my camera in focus. As I paddled farther upstream, though, I started to see the heads of other emerging Diamondback Terrapins as they were coming up for a breath of air. I saw one, then another, and another until finally I spotted a dozen or more terrapins swimming and possibly foraging on the abundance of estuarine life here including Blue-claw Crabs, Fiddler Crabs, mussels, marine worms, or small fish. The tidal waters must have been buzzing with activity. A terrapin style clambake near the shores of the Navesink!
This sighting on top of other terrapins I saw this past spring, both hatchlings and females nesting, has made me want to consider the Diamondback Terrapin population is increasing in northern Monmouth County. I am not alone either in thinking this. Recently, local crabbers in the Navesink River have expressed frustration at catching more terrapins in their pots than in years past. Frustration because terrapins are attracted to the same baits used to lure blue crabs in crab pots. If not released soon, air-breathing terrapins will eventually drown in a submerged crab pot. The loss of adult terrapins in crab pots is believed to be a main cause of population declines in many parts of their range. Almost all deaths in crab pots can be prevented, however, by equipping traps with turtle excluders, which allows large crabs to enter and keeps adult terrapins out.
Yet, something must be up. Last year, on June 29th, several planes were delayed and the runway was temporarily closed at John F. Kennedy International Airport as 150 Diamondback Terrapins, mostly females, walked across one of the runways from Jamaica Bay to nesting grounds in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. An amazing natural sight with the Manhattan skyline in the distance. In 2009, the same runway was closed due to the same event occurring by 78 diamondback terrapins.
It's really hard to tell for sure if the terrapin population is doing well around Lower New York Bay or not. There are few exiting scientific studies to show how the terrapin population is doing in this suburban-urban region. One study completed in the early 2000s by Dr. Russell Burke and others from Hofstra University suggested that the only known major terrapin nesting areas in New York Harbor were in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and at Sandy Hook NRA. There does not seem to be any other studies to show if the Navesink River, Sandy Hook Bay, or Raritan Bay, not even on the Staten Island side of Raritan Bay, have a robust terrapin population. Very disappointing.
Of course it's not easy for any wild animal to live in or near New York Harbor, and the same is true for Diamondback Terrapins. The busy and bustling waters of the harbor can be very stressful place for little water turtles. Factors causing declines in terrapin populations include the loss of salt marsh habitat and destruction of nesting beaches due to waterfront development, road mortalities of nesting females, boat strikes, excessive predation by raccoons, and continued harvesting for meat by some people. In many parts of their geographic range Diamondback Terrapin are listed as endangered, threatened, or species of special concern. The species is currently classified as a "special concern" in New Jersey.
The fact that the current status of the Northern Diamondback population throughout much of Lower New York Bay and its tributaries is unknown suggests strongly that more research is needed quickly here before the population crashes due to poor planning. While terrapins are tolerant of some pollution, the struggle these little turtles face today are countless.
Yet I'm hopeful that with proper protection and education, the Lower New York Bay population of Diamondback Terrapins will be large, stable, and bright. There are few things in life more exciting than to see a live little Diamondback with the towing skyscrapers of New York City in the background. It is a striking sight, hopefully not too rare.
You can help protect the Diamondback Terrapin population by supporting the protection, conservation, and restoration of salt marsh habitat in both New Jersey and New York. If you are a boater, navigate carefully in tidal creeks, rivers, and coves, where large numbers of terrapins may gather in late spring to mate at the water’s surface. While driving on coastal roads in June and July, be aware of any turtles that may be crossing the road to nest. If you see a turtle crossing the road, move it to the side that it's headed, if it is safe for you to do so. Do not collect or take the turtle to a "safer" place. All turtles should stay in the wild.
For more information, pictures, videos, 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/