Volunteers aim to rescue diamondback terrapins

Dr. Nathan Nazdrowicz tells volunteers about the diamondback terrapin and their use of the habitat at Port Mahon Road. Delaware State News/Jennifer Antonik

LITTLE CREEK — The road to safety is a dangerous one for diamondback terrapins visiting the Delaware Bayshore, especially in Little Creek.

Port Mahon Road, a popular stop for the semi-aquatic turtles, birders, horseshoe crab harvesters, boaters, and others, became especially treacherous for the terrapins and other wildlife after large rocks were installed along the coastline to minimize road erosion several years ago.

“Port Mahon Road runs from the town of Little Creek, hits the bay, runs all along the bay and ends in a parking lot. Because this road runs so closely to the water, there’s road erosion. As the sea level rises, the road has been eroding more and more each year,” Dr. Nathan Nazdrowicz of the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife told a group of volunteers Sunday. “There are rocks on the road to prevent coastal storms from washing major sections away. However, it’s actually a barrier to the terrapins.”

Nesting season for the diamondback terrapins brings extra creatures to the road as they attempt to reach a good habitat to lay their eggs. They typically spend their lives in bays and creeks where they can access marshy conditions for their nests. Hatchlings will live in the vegetated marsh area for about one year before moving out to the bay where larger predators exist, making Port Mahon Road prime real estate for the small creatures.

The journey over the rocks and eventually across the public road could be fatal for the diamondback terrapins, he added.

“Terrapins are still considered common in Delaware, but they are really a unique creature,” Dr. Nazdrowicz said, explaining that Port Mahon Road can become quite busy during peak nesting season. “Terrapins were once very commonly harvested and it was for soup, essentially. They underwent severe declines, especially in the northern part of the state.”

More volunteers are needed to help the terrapins navigate the rocky terrain.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, harvesting diamondback terrapins for soup lost its popularity when the prohibition of alcohol took place around the 1920s, as sherry was an ingredient in the delicacy.

Humans are still among their top predators now, though, as they are often killed by motorists or development along the shoreline.

“Sometimes people don’t notice the turtles in the road, so there are some turtle fatalities,” Dr. Nazdrowicz said.

But that’s where volunteers can help.

About two dozen passionate people like 10-year-old Rory Whitehouse visited the Kent County Hunter Education Training Center at the Little Creek Wildlife Area in Dover Sunday afternoon to learn about the diamondback terrapins and how they can get them to their destinations safely.

“I learned a lot. I learned how to hold a turtle. I learned how they might need help. I came because I really like animals,” Rory said.

Her mom, Jenn, said their family hopes to support Rory’s passion to help the diamondback terrapins by going to Port Mahon Road often to look out for them.

Dr. Nazdowicz said more volunteers are needed to help the terrapins navigate the rocky terrain, cross the road and possibly get back to the bay. They could also place turtles inside man-made tunnels along the road created to help alleviate some of the dangers of the rocks.

The turtles don’t naturally seek out tunnels for safety, so they don’t use the tunnels as often as environmentalists might like, Dr. Nazdowicz added.

The volunteers will also become citizen scientists during their visits and collect data to help the state learn where the turtles nest and where the state could start modifying the rocks along the road that are currently so dangerous to local wildlife.

Nesting season for the diamondback terrapins begins today and runs through July 31. Interested volunteers should fill out a volunteer application which can be found on the Operation Terrapin Rescue website along with time sheets and data forms.

Volunteers should note how many terrapins they observed, whether they were dead or alive, if there was any nesting activity and for how long they monitored the 2.1-mile road, along with other observations and notes.

Dr. Nazdrowicz emphasized safety with the volunteers at the training Sunday afternoon and encouraged them to park where they felt safe to observe the terrapins. Observers should wear sun protection and be prepared to find bugs and other creatures along the road while searching for diamondback terrapins.

“If you see a terrapin in the road, rescue it only if it’s safe for you to be out there. Also, use caution when walking on the rocks. The waves have the ability, during high tide, to move them,” he said.

“You might be aware that the Delaware Bay can get some flies. It might get buggy out there. There also might be the potential for some mosquitoes … Wear a hat, wear a long sleeve shirt and also you want to be protected from the sun. It will be hot and sunny when you’re there most of the time.”

He added that danger from the terrapins themselves is unlikely.

“Their claws are sharp, but they probably won’t bite. They might flail about and move around or open their mouth when you pick them up. If you’re concerned, wear work gloves,” he said. “It’s important for us to take care of our wildlife. This is just one way to do that together.”

More information can be found online at http://www.dnrec.delaware.gov/fw/Hunting/Pages/OperationTerrapinRescue.aspx

Reach staff writer Jennifer Antonik at jantonik@newszap.com

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