Want to see something really unusual during your nature walk or paddle? Bring along a child.Not that the unusual or unexpected event would not have taken place. But my guess is that, as adults, we don’t “see” what we don’t expect to see. Children have not developed that filter that handicaps our observations; they are not looking for anything in particular, and with their relaxed, curious focus they often see things that we miss.
While paddling Sebonac Creek last week, one of the youngest participants noticed a tiny turtle swimming along the surface or, more accurately, being carried along by the swift current not far from the inlet. “Hey Mike,” she cried out, “I found a turtle.”
She paddled well back in my wake. I just assumed she had seen the head of a diamondback terrapin protruding from the water, and asked her where she had seen it. She pointed back toward the middle of the inlet channel we had just crossed. “It was back there, but I have it right here,” she proclaimed, and opened her hand to reveal a tiny turtle the size of a 50-cent piece.
Closer examination proved it to be a diamondback terrapin, one of only three I have found in the wild, and the only one I have ever seen in the water. Diamondback hatchlings are thought to spend their first years of life on terra firma, under the salt marsh wrack line where they feed on a variety of invertebrates that call that moist, cool, micro-habitat home. [Note: the wrack line on the beach is also an important cool, moist micro-habitat in an otherwise hot, dry environment, and it is home to many similar invertebrates that shorebirds, including the piping plover, feed on. Unlike the salt marsh wrack line, the beach wrack line is sometimes difficult to find in areas where the wheels of motor vehicles churn it up.]
This is one of our most beautiful turtle species, and the only one that resides full time in our estuarine waters, where freshwater creeks and groundwater mix with seawater. Several species of freshwater turtles, notably the snapping turtle, and our terrestrial box turtle will occasionally wander into the estuary for a short time, and several species of sea turtles, most easily identified by their front legs and feet being modified into flippers, will reside there seasonally before migrating south. But in terms of turtles, the estuary is the domain of the diamondback terrapin.
This individual was a 2012 hatchling that may have only recently emerged from its nest. It is not uncommon for hatchlings here to remain in their warm, subterranean nests after hatching in late August or September, thereby converting them into their winter hibernacula. After all, why risk emerging in early fall as the days are growing shorter and cooler, only to have to find a suitable overwintering site by late October?
Sebonac Creek was teeming with schools of Atlantic silversides that were slightly more than one inch in length. That corresponds to fish aged 1.5 to 2 months old.
This is one species whose spawning event I would like to witness. It commences in the salt marsh grasses in daylight on a spring high tide (corresponding to a full moon or new moon) when the water temperature reaches 50 degrees. That would be in early April here, but I’m not sure how long their spawning season lasts. Large schools of full-grown silversides (4-inches long) mass in the shallow marsh grasses to release eggs and sperm. The eggs can survive being exposed to air during the low tide cycle. Incubation period and hatching are temperature dependent; eggs laid during an April spawn in 50-degree-plus water will hatch in about a month.
While lifeguarding at Main Beach in East Hampton over the weekend, I noted a constant stream of osprey flying in from points north, catching fish in the ocean, and heading back inland, most likely to feed their ever-hungry and fast-growing chicks. One osprey “hooked” a fairly hefty bluefish. A great black-backed gull noticed the osprey struggling a bit in the air with its feisty catch, and zoomed in for the steal. During evasive maneuvers, the osprey either lost its grip or realized it had too much weight aboard, and jettisoned the bluefish.
The very much alive fish tumbled from a height of 50 feet, landing with an audible “thud” on the beach at the feet of a gentleman who was in that very comfortable and relaxed zone somewhere between full consciousness and sleep. Between the thud and the flopping fish, the gentleman snapped to full alert and leapt out of his beach chair in shock. That was too close an encounter with nature for him!