Red-bellied turtles get habitat near Philadelphia airport

Pa. to build two beaches for threatened species for $346,242

September 02, 2001|By Elisa Ung | Elisa Ung,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA-Basking in the sun for hours.

Snoozing on aquatic vegetation through the night.

And drifting through life the rest of the time.

So lives the red-bellied turtle. Nice work, if you can get it.

To be fair, the reptile is considered a threatened species by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, just one step below endangered. And it faces a host of bad guys: egg-snatching raccoons, oil spills, and, now, a $72 million Pennsylvania Department of Transportation project constructing new ramps from Interstate 95 to the Philadelphia International Airport - which runs right through some prime turtle turf.

But fear not for the foot-long red-belly. Within a month, Transportation Department construction crews will respond to state Fish and Boat regulations by going to work on two turtle beaches in the same area, built to encourage turtle reproduction and relaxation - for $346,242.

Wetlands, too

By winter, the reptiles will live like royalty, with slanted oak platforms for them to soak up the sun, fencing to curtail roadkill, and carefully mixed sand, topsoil, and peat moss so mother turtles can safely bury eggs.

All this while 747s fly overhead and commuters whiz by on Transportation Department's new ramps.

"We're trying to balance transportation needs with being good stewards of what environmental concerns exist in the area," said Bob Eppley, a Transportation Department environmental specialist.

The ramp project will disturb or destroy almost a half-acre of natural land by creating approach roadways and cement piers. By enhancing the turtles' habitat, the state hopes the animals will feel comfortable enough to stay. The Transportation Department plans to create 2 additional acres of wetland to make up for the loss.

The project also calls for building two separate turtle beaches on the property, giving the turtles a combined total of 2,420 square yards of beach, with 13 basking platforms. The city and the airport will share a long-term maintenance agreement.

And when workers demolish the current departures ramp from I-95 southbound, they will cut down its supporting piers to create even more turtle basking platforms.

Already, beam-hoisting construction workers have been taught to treat the turtles well. They have been supplied long-handled nets to scoop any stray turtles out of harm's way.

The Fish and Boat Commission required the mitigation because the affected wetlands are critical habitats for a species whose population is diminishing. "The turtles have always been there. The airport was built around their habitat. The planes are in the turtles' backyard. Now we're trying to coexist here, keep everything happy and safe," said turtle consultant Robert T. Zappalorti.

Zappalorti, who runs Herpetological Associates Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Jackson, N.J., studied the potential impact of ramp construction on the red-bellied turtles. Wetlands span about 23.65 acres around the airport. The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, the city, and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation own parts of the land.

Two-year study

Over about two years of study, Zappalorti says he informally counted about 75 red-bellies on a little more than 18 acres of wetlands.

That number included one female red-belly spotted ambling along Bartram Avenue at the intersection of Route 291. Researchers returned her to the wetland area.

Zappalorti said red-bellies are not prone to migration. But he suspects the occasional flattened turtle on surrounding roads - probably females who were looking for a suitable nesting area.

Anyone aspiring to spot the little guys while waiting for a plane at the nation's 20th-largest airport will need extreme patience - and probably binoculars. Red-bellies are shy, and they're cold-blooded, so on hot days they'll most likely be out of sight, seeking relief in the water.

And they bolt as soon as they spot any potential predator. "They dive so quickly, the water seems to erupt," Zappalorti said.

Forget turtle-gawking in the winter. They hibernate from November to March.

Experts say the nearby John Heinz refuge tends to be a good place to see red-bellied turtles. (Their hint: Go early in the morning, before the sun gets too intense.) You can tell who's who by the female's higher shell and the male's longer front claws.

Red-bellied turtle love season occurs in spring, when - hormones running wild - they act out a series of underwater mating rituals. The male courts the female by waving his front claw, then tickling her nose, trying to hold her attention.

"If she's not interested, she swims away," said Zappalorti, who has seen the action, such as it is, through clear water with binoculars. "She doesn't want to be bothered. She has a headache."

Females lay anywhere between eight and 16 eggs around June, preparing by drinking large amounts of water, Zappalorti said. Next, the prospective mother picks a sunny area on the shore, digs a 4- to 6-inch hole, and buries the eggs, trying to conceal them from predators. Then she empties her bladder, wetting the area.

Her job is done.

About eight weeks later, the heat of the sun hatches the baby turtles, only about an inch in shell length. They instinctively migrate to water.

Zappalorti's firm, which he founded in 1977, is also finishing up a study of the rest of the species in the wetlands around the airport.

He has found snapping turtles, painted turtles, musk turtles, red-eared turtles, bullfrogs, green frogs, and spring peepers, all of which are plentiful in Pennsylvania.

For the time being, they'll get no beach of their own.

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