Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Terrapins of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

     I remember the first time I visited Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, I had gone there with a friend who mentioned this place that had wild terrapins and glossy ibis. It was well over 10 years ago and we got to see osprey with fish in their talons, glossy ibis seemed to line the West Pond, when it was still freshwater, and I recall seeing a female terrapin, trailside. I took a picture of her with my disposable camera. 
     Since that visit, I learned about the studies being done on the terrapins and predation rates of their nests by raccoons. During the summer, you see little cages, protecting to the untrained eye a square foot of ground, nothing notable- but in reality it is protecting future terrapins. I read about the studies, and Dr. Burke's work there, and it seemed like one of those things that sounded so cool, but I figured you had to be one of his students to participate in.
     I found out at work, my coworker was leading her Regional Ecology class on a trip to Jamaica Bay to meet with Dr. Burke and help collect data. When I found out she needed some support, she didn't even have to beg. I was in!
Enjoy the sights-
From the beginnings in the visitor center-- the feeders in the back were boasting a few familiar birds, including this male house finch. Normally these birds are red, but this one is yellow-orange. The pigment these birds boast are due to carotenoids in their diet, similar to how flamingoes turn pink due to their diet. So this guys' diet has caused him to be more yellow than their normal red. 
A cedar waxwing flew in while we were learning about the various research, both past and present conducted on this particular population of turtles.
Waxwings do a lot of hawking, flying from a perch, catching insects on the wing and returning to a perch to continue the act. I bet a crowd of 20 something people seemed like a good prospect, with the biting insects we attract our way.
We were excited to be introduced to a few female turtles Dr. Burke was studying by collecting fecal samples from them to collect data for a study on the diet of the terrapins. Diets can be compared by year and to other sites. To study diets of turtles involves getting your hands dirty, literally. We had to sift through water turtles were kept in to collect a fecal sample, those samples are then analyzed in a lab to see what the terrapins are noshing on.
Females are the ones who come up on land, like sea turtles, the females come up to nest, lay eggs, and return to the bay. Unlike sea turtles, terrapins have claws and proper feet and we learned can dig their nests in 25 minutes. Nest building in sea turtles is an ordeal that takes hours.
Terrapins can live in brackish to salt water, and have the most beautiful patterns on their (very soft) skin.
Turtles are also tagged by Dr. Burke, a little handheld reader can help him and his team tell who is who, who is new, and who is a regular visitor to the place.
Aside from fecal analysis to study diet, other current research involves investigating nest temperatures and affect on hatchlings (sex, behavior, etc) and looking at how rain storms affect the numbers of nesting turtles- as they have observed after a short rain, or between storms, terps nest in large numbers- and the hypothesis is that rain possibly washes away their smell, therefore reducing predation rates on those nests.
One of Dr. Burke's volunteers came to us with this, a baby terrapin, probably only a year old - found in a parking lot, I recall, and adorable. The plan was to make sure the little guy was healthy, could acclimate to some water, and proved to be ready to go into the wild,
Am I sorry for all these terrapin photos? No. Let the squeeing commence.
We all, 20 or so adults, went nuts over this tiny dose of adorable terrapin.
Here is a small compilation of the females from the fecal study we released back into Jamaica Bay. Take note of how they don't look back, and for the most part, make a B-line for the water.

A mocking bird peering over us as a few of us picked through strainer to get fecal matter to go back to the lab.
We also walked the beach with Dr. Burke, this was a super special opportunity. In real life, you do not walk to beach, but with Dr. Burke, our search for terrapins was on. While we came up empty handed, in terms of reptilians, the other residents were abundant, double crested cormorants and glossy ibis were frequent fly-overs.
Eastern Towhee's belted out their song all 7 hours were spent outdoors at the refuge.
Eventually we released the little terrapin, as he was clearly ready to take on the wild.... Warning, severely adorable material ahead.

A taste of salt water to ignite his little turtle senses...

Compared the periwinkle snails, this little guy gives you a sense of how tiny he is! 
A black skimmer patrolled the shoreline, using its lower mandible to slice through the water, sensing for small fish to snatch up into its mouth.
One of the osprey pair seems to be doing some home renovations, carrying nesting material in its talons.
I could watch skimmers all day everyday, this behavior is mesmerizing! 
A metropolis not all that far away...
A (very, very) late Brant. This gooses kind migrated up north, and last remaining brant may have lingered into early May, but this guy is a bit late to getting up north to mate and raise a family. 
A cruddy photo showing an interesting behavior in this little (correction) Tricolored Heron. He appears to be saluting, but he is using his wing to shade over the water and see any potential food below the surface.
More of the shading behavior... 
This guy was so very far away, but you get a decent sense of how gorgeous (and how easily confused with similar species) Tricolored herons are- I wonder if we were at closer range if we would have noticed a difference in size so I wouldn't have originally confused it for a little blue heron. I thought that white belly was a little weird... I suppose we all mis-ID every once and a while.
So, in the end, did I enjoy my day out with the Masters students of the Regional Ecology course? Well, you tell me what you think...

Pretty sure that stupid smile on my face gives you an idea of how great of a trip this was.