Searching for Diamondback Terrapins in Alabama
Many folks are putting together a “bucket list” of things they would like to do or see before they can no longer do them. For many interested in natural resources there are certain national parks and scenic places they would like to visit. Other natural resource fans have a list of wildlife species they would like to see.
Recently I hooked with famed Alabama outdoorsman Jimbo Meador to search for locations to find Alabama turtles. Jimbo has been fishing, hunting, and enjoying the Mobile Bay area all of his life and he now using that knowledge as a guide in a nature-based tourism project. He recently received a call from a group of gentleman from another part of the country who had on their bucket list viewing 1000 reptilian species in their native habitat. In Alabama they were interested in the Black-knobbed Map Turtle, the Alabama Red Belly, and the Diamondback Terrapin. Jimbo has just begun the first module of the Florida Master Naturalist Program and reached out to us for advice on where to find these guys. Luckily, after working with scientists from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, I knew where to find diamondback terrapins – and have a pretty good idea on the others.
These “diamonds of the marsh” – as they are sometimes called – are very elusive creatures. They inhabit muddy bottom creeks within extensive salt marsh habitat all along the Gulf and East coast of the United States. I spent two years searching the Florida panhandle before I found my first live animal. It was one of the odd things though – once you have seen one, you now know what you are looking for and begin to find more.
I took Jimbo to a location near Dauphin Island where about 150 terrapins are believed to exist. Terrapins spend most of their day within creeks that meander through acres of salt marsh. The odd thing is there may be hundreds of creeks within these marshes and the terrapins – for some reason – will select their favorites and hang there. You can spend all day paddling through perfect looking creeks not seeing a head at all… then all of sudden… you enter one creek… not really any different than the others… and there they are.
Within these creeks they feed on a variety of shellfish but particularly like the marsh periwinkles. These small snails are the ones that climb the cordgrass and needlerush plants during high tide to avoid their nemesis the blue crab and the diamondback terrapin. Terrapins do crawl out of the water to bask in the sun and have been known to bury in the loose fine mud. Females must find high dry ground to lay her eggs. She may swim as far as 5 miles from her home creek to find a suitable beach. They do like sandy beaches that are open and free of most plants. They emerge onto these beaches during May and June to lay about 7-10 eggs. Most females will lay more than one clutch each season emerging once every 16 days or so. Different from sea turtles – terrapins nest during the daylight hours. Actually the sunnier – the better. Raccoons are a big problem… find and consuming the eggs; on some beaches researchers have reported 90% or more of the nest have been raided by the furry guys. Crows, snakes, and possibly armadillos will take nests as well. If the developing young survive the 60+ days of incubation, they will emerge and head for the grass areas of the marsh… not the water. Here they will spend the first year of their life living more like a land turtle before they make their way to the brackish waters of the salt marsh.
These are fascinating creatures and should be on everyone’s natural resource bucket list. The hard effort of finding them really makes doing so very rewarding. On this day Jimbo saw only one head – I did not see any. I have found in my study site that I see more heads in the afternoon (we were out in the morning). I do not know if this is the case at all terrapin nesting sites, but something to consider when looking. Though we did not find many that day he now knows what to look for when searching for them. Next we will have to hunt the Alabama Red Belly Turtle. That is another story for another day.
We will continue this series with other interesting wildlife creatures to “hunt” in the Florida panhandle.