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Jun 6, 2017 10:48 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

June Sightings

The tiny tracks of this diamondback terrapin were followed up a bay beach to its hiding spot under the beach wrack. MELLISSA WINSLOW
Jun 6, 2017 11:37 AM

June marks the peak of turtle nesting season on Long Island, and this is the time of year to be most alert for turtles crossing roads.Female box turtles leave their shady woodland haunts for sunlit openings with easily excavated and well-drained sandy soils to lay their eggs. The females of our commonly encountered species of pond and marsh turtles (painted and snapping) and our resident estuarine turtle (diamondback terrapin) exit their wetland habitats also in search of sandy, sunlit soils where the warmth of the sun will provide the perfect incubation temperature for the buried eggs.

While monitoring piping plover nests last week, Juliana Duryea and Mellissa Winslow happened on two interesting wildlife sightings. En route to the plover area, they noticed the tiny one-inch-wide tracks of a turtle headed up the beach away from the bay. They followed it a short distance to where they disappeared under the beach wrack line, where the turtle itself was found.

This was a diamondback terrapin. As turtles grow after each season of winter dormancy, their shells also expand in length and girth, producing noticeable annual growth “rings” on the outside surface of the shell, much like the annual growth rings in trees. Among terrapins, growth occurs in very small increments and the ring margins become very difficult to discern after eight years of age. With age, the growth rings also get quite worn.

Based on that, this small diamondback terrapin appeared to be less than a year old and would have hatched at the end of last summer. Even seasoned turtle researchers have difficulty finding these hatchlings in their preferred habitat—the shifting wrack line of the salt marsh and bay beaches. There they find a moist microenvironment through the heat of summer, plenty of food in the form of insects and tiny crustaceans—such as the ubiquitous flea-like amphipods—and cover from potential predators.

The second interesting wildlife sighting occurred as the monitors reached one of the plover nests. Two of the four eggs had just hatched and the hatchlings lay exhausted from the ordeal, their downy feathers still wet from the moist shell environment. All the fragments of their recently shed egg shells were gone, having been removed from the nest by the adults. This curious behavior is most likely an instinctive precaution against attracting predators while the remaining eggs incubate.

A third egg, straddled by the two hatchlings, was in the process of being pecked open by the chick inside. As is the case with many animals that hatch from eggs or pupal sacs, it’s often hard to believe that the emergent creature fit inside the egg or sac.

Plovers and terns are precocial species, meaning that the young are relatively mature and mobile from the moment of birth or hatching. Soon after hatching, plover chicks will begin moving about the upper beach where there is some cover in the form of vegetation, and foraging for food under the watchful supervision of an adult. One of their main foods is an amphipod called the beach flea, or sand hopper, that is a close relative of the species that diamondback terrapin hatchlings feed on under the wrack line.

Plover chicks are not very quick on their feet. During the three week period after hatching and before they’ve developed their flight feathers, they rely on camouflage to avoid danger. Based on calls from one of the adults, or sensing a threat themselves, they will move up the beach toward the thickest vegetation near the toe of the dune and seek cover. If they sense that the threat is overtaking them and they can’t outrun it for the dune toe, they will seek a low spot in the beach, flatten themselves in the bottom and freeze.

This strategy that evolved over thousands of years might work to avoid a gull overhead or a fox cruising the beach. But if the perceived threat is a vehicle on the beach, the strategy can easily backfire. The lowest spot on many of our beaches these days is often a tire track, and the plover chick might choose the same track that the vehicle driver chose to follow.

To avoid this potential conflict, as well as dogs chasing the chicks, once the eggs have hatched and until chicks have fledged and are flying, sections of the beach are closed to vehicles and dogs. Beachgoers are still welcome to enjoy these areas. Please respect the restrictions that have been enacted to protect these species.

As of June 5, many white oaks (quercus alba) are still in the early stages of leafing out, with their tiny, young leaves showing more reddish-pink (the pigment called anthocyanin) than green (chlorophyll). Most of the oak and pitch pine pollen has been shed and the oak’s pollen-bearing male flowers that resemble long, thin tassels have dropped from the trees, covering decks, patios, roofs and cars.

My garden weeding this past week involved pulling up quite a few oak seedlings. These would be the recently germinated acorns from the black oak group (e.g. black oak, scarlet oak, red oak) as oppose to those of the white oaks (e.g. white oak, chestnut oak) that germinated soon after dropping to the ground last fall.

The fall of 2016 marked the second consecutive year that we had a huge acorn crop, and there seems to be a noticeable increase in the number of acorn eaters in the area this spring. I thought I had a particularly active chipmunk in my yard until I realized that I was seeing not one constantly scurrying about but five as the family posed together on the top of my woodpile recently.

Another acorn-lover has finished shedding its drab winter overcoat, revealing its reddish-brown summer garb, and many of the male deer are already sporting well-developed, velvet-covered antlers. Our local deer herds are looking quite healthy and robust after a mild winter and abundant food.

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