Hungry raccoons pose threat to terrapins in N.Y.

Drama of life and death plays out in Jamaica Bay

July 21, 2002|By Andy Newman | Andy Newman,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- The diamondback terrapin dug herself a hole in the middle of a sandy trail at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge along the south shore of Queens and went right to work, apparently oblivious to the biologist crouching 20 feet away and trying not to breathe.

In just a few minutes, she laid a dozen inchlong eggs in the hole, filled it in, danced her wide-webbed back feet on the sand to tamp it flat and ambled back toward the water.

Before the turtle, a sturdy specimen with black spots on her face and a barnacle on her back, could get far, the biologist, Professor Russell L. Burke of Hofstra University, scooped her up and set her in a bucket with two others. His assistant raised a little orange flag, Iwo-Jima-like, to mark the nest. It was a fertile morning for terrapins.

But a few feet away lay the main reason the scientists were there -- another terrapin nest, dug up and littered with scraps of thin eggshell, curling in the sun like shredded pingpong balls. "Raccoons get most of them within 24 hours," Burke said.

A remarkable recovery

After being fished nearly to extinction in the early part of the last century to feed the swell set's appetite for turtle soup, the diamondback terrapin has made a remarkable recovery.

Nowhere more so than at the refuge, home to what Burke calls the species' busiest breeding ground in its North American range, more than 2,000 nests crammed into about 185 acres of New York City, a 15-minute stroll from the subway.

But the refuge's terrapins may be in trouble again. For the last few years, more than 95 percent of their eggs have been eaten by raccoons, Burke said. Each night at dusk in June and July, the raccoons raid the nests and gorge themselves, orangey yolks running down their faces. This is not natural at the refuge, part of Gateway National Recreation Area. The refuge is on an island. Twenty years ago, there were no raccoons here. Now, there are many dozens.

The source of the threat, once again, is man, only this time he means well. So much for good intentions.

In the 1950s, the National Park Service dug freshwater ponds to attract migratory birds and other animals. And sometime in the 1980s, said the refuge's district manager, Donald Riepe, people, often workers for pest-control companies, began dumping raccoons in the refuge that they had trapped in attics and back yards of nearby homes.

Relocating raccoons is against city regulations. They are supposed to be turned in to the city's animal-control agency to be tested for rabies (a process that requires their decapitation). But dumping is easier and makes a certain sense, Burke said: "Everybody knows wildlife belongs in wildlife refuges."

Once raccoons are inside the refuge, of course, they are protected, which makes getting rid of them a politically delicate process. "There are devil's advocates in the Park Service who say there's no need to get rid of the raccoons," Burke said.

`A native animal'

Among them is Riepe. "A raccoon is a native animal to this area," he said. "We're not opposed to raccoons here."

Burke said he could understand that, "except that those islands supported a large terrapin population before the humans and the raccoons came."

Raccoon sympathizers point out that on the mainland, losing 95 percent of terrapin eggs to raccoons is normal. "But today's normal does not necessarily mean healthy," Burke said. "Terrapins are in trouble all up and down the range. A lot of the land changes in the past 200 years have really favored raccoons."

Riepe agreed that the raccoons at Jamaica Bay might be getting out of hand. But no one knows for sure whether the number of adult terrapins is dropping -- they live, and lay eggs, for so long that it could take decades to see an effect.

Which is where Burke and his researchers come in. They are trying to determine the baseline: counting nests, eggs and turtles every year. They are tracking where the females prefer to nest -- open sandy spots or places with denser vegetation -- so that they can advise the Park Service on how to manage the landscape to favor the turtles. Along the way, they are trying to answer some fundamental questions about the terrapin, a surprisingly understudied species. No one knows, for instance, how long they live.

Arduous fieldwork

The fieldwork is arduous. Armed with walkie-talkies, the researchers scan the blue-brown waters of the bay, watching for the periscoping heads of female turtles who are in turn scanning the shoreline for a safe-looking place to land and lay eggs.

One sweltering day this summer, as a graduate student, Sharon Sclafani, camped in the shade of a straggly staghorn sumac tree behind an old motorboat, her radio crackled with news from across the park.

"Turtle Girl, I have a turtle here," came the staticky voice of her older sister, Kathryn Sclafani, a housewife who is spending much of her summer helping Sharon stalk terrapins. "Roger that, Lucky Charm," Sharon radioed back. "Try to follow her and let me know how it goes."

When they catch a turtle nesting, the instruments come out. Sharon, a chatty Long Islander who turned to biology after a few unfulfilling years of office work, measured the turtle, epoxied a metal tag bearing the number 548 onto her back and admired the black chevrons on her ridge and the black swirls on her underside, or plastron.

She stuck her finger inside the turtle's shell and pressed her thigh to see if she had any eggs left. Then she took out a hypodermic, injected a transponder coded with a unique number that can be read with a scanner, and released her. "You're good to go, little girl," she said. "Go be free and prosper."

Afterward, she dug up the nest, measured the eggs, reburied them and staked a metal screen into the sand to keep the raccoons out. She will remove the screen shortly before the eggs hatch in September, so that the babies can get out.

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