There she was, just sashaying across the green on #3 Plantation. She was completely oblivious of the four golfers who were trying to putt out – she was on a mission. After safely traversing the green, she gracefully dropped over the edge of the first cut and went head first into the greenside bunker. There she proceeded to poke her nose into the sand about every three or four inches until she found just the right consistency of sand and dirt. Twenty minutes later, after excavating an 8” deep hole and depositing her eggs, she reversed her route and disappeared into the spartina grass. Within 24 hours, her nest was decimated by foraging raccoons.
I was hooked! I had just witnessed my first diamondback terrapin searching out her nest site on one of five golf holes of our Plantation course that run adjacent to the eastern and western marshes ( #3,8,9,10 and 15). We had just moved into our home overlooking the third hole and from our back deck I could occasionally observe the terrapins as they came in on the high tides to lay their eggs. I did research on the web and contacted a few marine scientists including John ‘Crawfish’ Crawford at the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service. With support from ‘Crawfish’, some basic knowledge and boundless enthusiasm I started retrieving terrapin nests from the bunkers before they could be destroyed by predators or golfers. In any given year I had about 40 -70 nests in sand filled flower pots on my front deck where the nests were protected from the raccoons, crows, moles, golfers and maintenance machinery. My first sighting of a diamondback terrapin was in 2002 and it is truly amazing how the project has matured!
The diamondback terrapin is found along the Atlantic coast from Cape Cod to the Florida Keys and west along the Gulf Coast to Texas. It resides in the salt marsh ecosystem and is the only turtle species in the United States that lives in the brackish water zone between fresh water habitats and the ocean. This ornately patterned turtle is considered “a species of concern” under the Endangered Species Act and is officially protected by several states. Up through the 1930’s these turtles were hunted almost to extinction. The species was considered a delicacy in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Terrapin soup was served in many of the finer restaurants along the east coast; in 1899, terrapin was offered on the dinner menu of Delmonico’s restaurant in New York as the third most expensive item on the menu. Unfortunately, having a ‘protected’ status does not ensure the survival of the diamondback. They are subject to drowning in crab traps, habitat destruction, road kill and predation. Statistically only about 3% of the eggs laid will produce a hatchling and the number of hatchlings that survive to adulthood is believed to be similarly low.
In late summer of 2009, Chuck Smith, a resident and member of the Skidaway Audubon committee, watched from the tee box as I halted play to cross the fairway to release a dozen new hatchlings into the marsh. At that time, John Crawford, a Naturalist with the University of Georgia Marine Science Center, and Chuck were working on the Audubon recertification of Plantation and Palmetto courses to again qualify the courses as Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries. John thought that my ‘turtle rescue’ project would be of interest to Audubon international and the recertification process. He suggested we improve the collection and hatching of the eggs by constructing ‘nesting boxes’. In 2010, Skidaway Audubon funded the project and with the help of Mike Perham (Director of Golf Course & grounds Maintenance) and Chris Steigelman (Plantation course superintendent) nesting boxes were designed, built and placed on the third and eighth holes of our Plantation golf course. Due to the continued success of the program a third box was added in 2013 and two more in 2015. The procedure would be to locate the terrapin nests, retrieve the eggs and transfer the eggs to the closest nesting box where Mother Nature would take care of the hatching and release process.
For seven years I had been canvassing the five nesting holes of Plantation twice a day with the help of my trusty canine companion – our Bouvier, Samantha. It was time to enlist some two legged assistance. The project owes its success to five volunteers – Ben Mc Makin, Jim Dills, Kathryn Mc Learn, Pattye Field and Peggy Miller who have, over the last six years, dedicated their energies to recover, relocate and release over 6,000 Diamondback Terrapin hatchlings into the surrounding marshes. All the volunteers have been trained and licensed as sub-permittees under John Crawford’s DNR Scientific Collection Permit. Unlike Mother Nature’s 3% hatch rate, the project averages a hatch rate of about 84% and has grown to be the largest terrapin rescue project along the coast. We have contributed a number of statistics to the DNR that will help in Diamondback research. We have documented the average number of eggs per nest, the average gestation period, and the fact that most of the females tend to return to the exact same location to lay their three clutches during the season. As this endeavor has expanded we found the need to add more volunteers. Dawn Cordo, Marji Schwickrath, Jim Olsen and Liz Munro have joined our team and we now have a waiting list of another dozen residents who would like to participate.