What a relief that I actually like the smell of bug repellent! A few days ago, I was nearly bathing in it while enjoying an outback safari-like experience complete with incessant mosquitoes. As I now liberally apply no-itch sprays, I still wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world.
Back in late June, I signed up for a few days with the Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) research team at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, led by the personable Dr. Russell Burke of Hofstra University. Conducting research on this turtle species for about 10 years, Dr. Burke is a regular fixture at Jamaica Bay through the terrapin nesting and hatching season, running from roughly May through September.
One task on the early summer shift was watching for females scouting out the area for a suitable nesting spot. On my first day, we found two females. Alas, they either had already nested or didn't seem to find the right spot, so we marked them with a series of numbers or bright nail polish in case other volunteers found them at a later date. After recording their size, where they were found and other vital statistics, we sent them on their way.
Except for this terrific first day, my luck was generally not good. My allotted time was either plagued by uncooperative tides, or cancelled due to excessive heat. Even the day after their big stroll along the JFK runways, I was turning up zip on terrapins. Sometimes I spotted them far off in the water, but they just didn't seem interested to climb onto terra firma.
During these times, we had the sad job of noting locations of predated nests -- excavated holes with the curling remains of terrapin eggshells. I truly like raccoons, but seeing their exacting skills did not make them particuarly endearing at this moment. The natural world is harsh indeed.
In many cases -- about 30 or so -- other volunteers were privileged enough to watch females select a nesting spot. Using her back legs, she creates a cavity in the ground, about 4-8" deep and deposits roughly the same number of oval, pinkish-white eggs. Once finished, she covers the cavity and heads back to the water. At this point the volunteers place sturdy cages over the site before the raccoons can do their work. Each cage's location is noted and marked with a numbered flag.
Hatchlings emerge 60-85 days later, depending on soil temperatures and nest cavity depth. Volunteers take shifts 7 days a week to check all the cages.
And this is where my luck changed.
I arrived for my 4pm shift and was immediately greeted by five hatchlings patiently waiting for me. I moved on and found a very crowded cage filled with -- count 'em -- 15 restless little terrapins. Each clutch is collected and placed into a container with air holes. I marked the nest number, hatchling count, date and time, and attached it to each container. Later, researchers will measure and tag each one, then release them back to the bay. Females may return again to lay eggs once they reach maturity in about 7 years. We'll never see males again as they spend their entire lives in water.
By the time I finished collecting the second group, the mosquitoes were thick and the repellent was simply not working. I recall reading about naturalists and photographers braving swarms of biting insects to a point that they were barely able to see. My conditions were not this extreme, I reminded myself as they slid under my sunglass lenses to my eyelids.
The promise of, and committment to, these little creatures was more than enough reason to continue my shift and just as I rounded to the last nest I was once again rewarded -- 4 more terrapins!
Three hours after I started, I began to understand how research could become addictive. I was tempted to stay on to watch over each nest like an over-eager babysitter. In the end, it was the sunset that forced me to call it a day. Along with the mosquitoes.