Volunteers Search for, Protect Diamondback Terrapins Along Pax River’s Shores

For the fourth consecutive year, determined volunteers are once again scouring the beaches at Naval Air Station Patuxent (Pax) River in search of the elusive nesting sites of the diamondback terrapin.
“Chesapeake Bay terrapin populations have been plummeting at an alarming rate for years, yet Pax River’s habitat seems to support one of the largest breeding populations in this part of the Chesapeake Bay,” explained Kyle Rambo, Pax River’s conservation director. “And since our population is one of the most intensely studied, it’s important for the Navy to contribute to the ongoing research of this species — which is an important resource, both ecologically and economically.”
This year’s terrapin study coordinator is Michael Irvin, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in environmental science, working as a rare species intern for the installation’s Natural Resources Department through AmeriCorps and The Student Conservation Association.
“My responsibilities include communicating with all the volunteers via email, creating schedules, training new volunteers, recording data and participating in the surveys myself on a daily basis,” Irvin explained. “I began looking for terrapin nests when I got here on May 8, but we began daily surveys in earnest on May 18.”
Irvin has about 20 volunteers — a mixture of new and seasoned veterans who have participated in past surveys — who go out on a regular basis through September and spend their free time looking for the subtle signs that might indicate a terrapin nest, such as tracks in the sand or disturbances like churned up sand or sand sprayed against nearby vegetation.
“This study would not be remotely possible without all of the time and effort dedicated by volunteers, and I’m amazed at the level of involvement and manpower,” Irvin said. “Someone is surveying the beaches every day, with teams meeting around 5:30 p.m. and searching for as long as three hours. Weekend surveys typically begin at 3 p.m.”
Research goals include determining and documenting breeding success, local population demographics, hatchling and adult survival and mortality rates, and longevity — in addition to simply helping to sustain healthy populations of terrapins in this region.
As of July, volunteers have discovered a total of 40 nests.
Student Conservation Association