The Marvelous Marsh

Hello readers, my name is Jonathan Taylor and I am a new face for the land trust. I work for North Florida Land Trust (NFLT) as the seasonal Biological Technician monitoring diamondback terrapins on Sawpit Island. This position was created in partnership with Talbot Islands State Parks, as the northern portion of Sawpit Island, where diamondback terrapins come to nest, is owned and managed by Big Talbot Island State Park while the southern portion is owned and managed by NFLT. In addition to working on the beautiful Big Talbot Island, I also live out here at the NFLT-owned Talbot House, where some of you may have spent an evening with us at the recent Fish Fry. I came to NFLT, and the Jacksonville area, from my hometown of Columbus, Ohio back in April 2015. I graduated from Miami University in Ohio in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in Zoology and Environmental Science, so this position is right up my alley and it’s very exciting! Before moving here, I was a lab technician for Scott’s Miracle-Gro and a field volunteer for the Ohio branch of The Nature Conservancy. I have an extensive background in zoos and aquariums as I was a seasonal employee at the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium for several years doing summer camps and other conservation education programs. But enough about me, let’s talk terrapins.

 A view of the salt marsh on Sawpit Island.

A view of the salt marsh on Sawpit Island.

As I mentioned, I conduct my work on Sawpit Island, which sits between the Nassau Sound and the Intracoastal Waterway just off the north end of Big Talbot Island. The northern part of the island is administered by Talbot Islands State Parks as a critical habitat area, mainly because of its importance as a nesting area for diamondback terrapins that come from further up the Nassau River and its tributaries. Diamondback terrapins are a type of turtle and are unique because they are the only turtle species that lives in brackish water (water that is a mixture of fresh and saltwater) which makes up the marshes in this area. Twice a day, I go out to sandy beach areas around the island to look for signs of terrapin nesting. There are a number of clues that key me into nesting activity: tracks going to and from the water, tracks and tail marks in the dunes, disturbed areas of sand, or sand that appears to have been thrown on top of surrounding vegetation. If an area piques my interest enough, I start probing the sand with my finger and if I’m lucky it will punch through the sand into the nesting chamber where I can then feel the squishy, leathery eggs. The searching is not without disappointment though, terrapins are very choosey about where they make a nest. They will often start digging a nest only to find the area unsuitable and go try somewhere else. They will even dig dummy holes either intentionally to throw off predators, or unintentionally if they were disturbed while nesting. Once a nest has been confirmed I collect weather and GPS data for use in determining which areas the terrapins are utilizing for nesting. The most prominent threat to terrapins and their nests is predation, or being eaten, by raccoons. Raccoons are considered a subsidized predator, their population is artificially inflated because they find food sources left behind from human activities, just one more reason to clean up after yourself when you go to the beach!

A female diamondback terrapin I found on Sawpit Island.

A female diamondback terrapin I found on Sawpit Island.

So that’s my job, and I love it. I’ve really enjoyed just about everything about being out on Big Talbot over the last couple of months. I get up early in the morning to do my monitoring and have yet to get tired of seeing the sun rise over the Nassau Sound and being out on Sawpit each day. Because terrapins are so elusive in their nesting, tracking their whereabouts is often an uphill battle, but it’s worth the excitement of poking into a nest buried in the sand or dead marsh grass and finding those eggs. The most enjoyable part of my time here thus far has been learning about all that Big Talbot Island has to offer. Before coming here I really didn’t know much about salt marshes or terrapins. Since then, I’ve found that the salt marsh and intertidal ecosystems in this area are fascinating. Thanks to my housemates (seasonal researchers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) I have become familiar with the wide array of birds that inhabit this area. Just in walking around the Talbot House property all sorts of wildlife can be found, and the views of the surrounding marsh are picturesque. It all makes me happy that places like this are still around, places where people like myself can explore and learn to my heart’s content. There’s much to find out there in the marsh, and I encourage everyone to take a look.

A beautiful day on the dock behind the Talbot House.

A beautiful day on the dock behind the Talbot House.