Del. agencies protect terrapins' habitat
Published: Monday, September 24, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 24, 2012 23:09
Between Dewey Beach, Del. and Fenwick Island, Del., state Rt. 1 is lined with signs warning drivers to be attentive to crossing terrapins, especially between May and September every year.
These signs represent the collaborative effort between several sections of government and a nonprofit organization at the Delaware Beaches to help keep terrapins, a species of turtle, alive. Every year, female terrapins cross over Rt. 1 from the bayside of the beaches to the sand dunes on the sea side to lay their eggs.
“Instinctively, terrapins live in estuaries their whole life except during nesting season,” Sally Boswell, education and outreach coordinator for Delaware Center for the Inland Bays, says. “During nesting season, they leave the estuary and move up to the dunes.”
It is during this time the female terrapins are killed, which can be potentially devastating to the terrapin population, according to Boswell.
“If you lose one female terrapin, you lose the entire potential for fertility,” Boswell says.
Beach erosion and predators pose a major threat to terrapins. Females now have fewer areas to nest, and their eggs are constantly threatened by predators such as foxes, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control state wildlife biologist, Holly Niederriter says.
“Very few of the nests actually survive and the very few hatchlings that do survive do not live to production age,” Niederriter says. “Protecting the female is most important.”
In 2005, DNREC teamed up with Delaware’s Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership to create a nesting site for the terrapin mothers to safely lay their eggs. The nesting sites, created by moving high-grade sand to a state-owned area park near the bay, proved to be successful and allowed mother terrapins to lay their eggs without crossing the highway.
“The first year, we had nine nests, and none were depredated,” Niederriter says. “The second year, we had 31 nests.”
Biologists also compared it to other sites and found that the artificial sites were equally as successful in creating habitat for terrapins.
“We compared it with five other sites where we documented females’ eggs for successfulness and deprivation,” Niederriter says. “We then did a statistical analysis and found that they were using the habitats the same amount.”
Although Niederriter only counted the nests for the first two years, she goes with other biologists every year to check on the nests.
“Every year, we find that turtles are still using it,” she says.
In 2005, terrapins faced another threat: the construction of the Indian River Bay Inlet Bridge. The bridge, which was officially opened up to drivers this year, is located in between Rehoboth Beach, Del. and Bethany Beach, Del. According to Niederriter, the creation of the bridge took away 0.5 acres of adequate nesting habitat.
However, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles took strides to mitigate for the bridge’s construction by building an artificial nesting site similar to the one created by DNREC . The nesting site was created in 2005 near Haven Bay , a once-popular location for kayakers near the Delaware Seashore State Park .
Niederriter says the quality of sand was not comparable to the high-quality sand used for DNREC’s site, but it still proved to be an effective nesting site for terrapins.
“We found that the quality of sand didn’t really matter too much,” Niederriter says.
In addition, Niederriter says DelDOT has been very careful to preserve terrapin habitat, compared to other agencies.
According to Anna Smith, environmental planner for DelDOT, the two agencies have a very communicative and cogent relationship.
“We regularly work with DNREC and talk with them exclusively,” Smith says.
Smith says that DelDOT’s efforts to protect terrapins began in 2001 when a passerby issued a concern about the high level terrapins being hit by cars along the portion of Rt. 1 between Rehoboth and Fenwick Island . It was then that DelDOT began building fences along the highway to keep terrapins from walking into traffic.
In addition, DelDOT restricts mowing during nesting seasons to prevent mowers from destroying eggs.
“DelDOT restricts mowing from May 15 to July 15 and then again from August to October,” Smith says. “DelDOT does its mowing between July 16 and July 31 to minimize damage.”