PORT DEPOSIT — The crew that came to Tome Gas House Saturday morning to clean the beach for the Northern Map turtle habitat were rewarded for their hard work when they witnessed a clutch of turtles emerge from their nest.
Members of Girl Scout Troops 934 and 213 and Cub Scout Pack 92 joined High 5 Initiative to remove all the wood and garbage that collected on the shore where female turtles would be traversing to get to their protected nesting ground.
Northern Map turtles are an endangered species only found in Port Deposit and in Michigan. Port Deposit signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Towson University in 2013 that established the Turtle Education Center inside Tome Gas House. When it was restored in 2017, the second floor of the historic building was dedicated to the conservation of the turtles and it is used by TU students for that research.
Briana Ash, president and co-founder of High 5 Initiative, said this was one of three clean up locations tackled by 48 volunteers Saturday, where more than 3,000 pounds of debris was removed – including 13 tires.
“We’re finally seeing a reduction in trash,” Ash said of the twice-yearly clean up of these waterway locations in Port Deposit, along Route 222 and Exelon Park in Conowingo. She said The High 5 Initiative, a North East-based environmental non-profit, uses the clean ups to reach those they encounter while picking up trash to talk about the effects on the water and wildlife and encourage participation.
“While people are fishing they see us cleaning,” Ash said. It’s especially important around the turtle habitat, she added. “The thing is to get this all cleaned up so they have a chance.”
Steven Kimble, a TU professor in the Biological Sciences Department, is in charge of the research at Tome Gas House. Kimble said for all the hard work done and being done, there’s still a lot of unanswered questions about Northern Map turtles.
“It’s a big river and little turtles,” Kimble said, noting that the Susquehanna River has its own challenges and these silver dollar sized hatchlings have to survive environmental impacts and predators.
While picking up wood on the beach in a light rain, the youngsters found four baby turtles and took them to the research center to be recorded and checked. Very close to the building, several girls noticed movement on one of the mounds and called the adults over to watch as 10 babies slowly emerged.
“These guys were laid last spring,” Kimble said. Females come ashore to the same location this time of year and lay their eggs in a hole they’ve dug. Those eggs will hatch at the end of summer but stay underground all winter feeding off their yolk sac.
“It takes a long time to get to where they can reproduce,” Kimble said. Five years to be exact. For all their work Kimble said it is still unknown how many survive each cycle. Other nesting spots on sandy beaches among the islands in the Susquehanna River below the Conowingo Dam are more open to predation, he noted.
“On a sunny day, we’ll see a lot of littles basking,” Kinmble said. “About May 20, we will see the adult females basking and yoking up their egg sacs. You’ll see females stacked on top of each other.”
So, the Tome Gas House is the Northern Map turtle’s best chance at survival – at least during the egg laying and nesting cycle, Kimble said.
“We’re working on getting (the beach) restored to a more natural slope,” he said of the fenced in section in front of the gas house. “We appreciate High 5 and the scouts coming here. They really make a difference.”
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