Re-emerging from pandemic shell, turtle research fundraiser back at Austin lakefront restaurant

María Méndez
Austin American-Statesman

After a hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Eric Munscher of Houston returned to the Austin lakefront restaurant County Line, not for its barbecue, but for its turtles.

On Saturday morning, Munscher, of the Turtle Survival Alliance, and a handful of other volunteers gathered at the restaurant, which sits on Bull Creek near Lake Austin, to resume a study of the abundant turtles in the area.

"It's just neat to finally be out again and getting people to come see the turtles," said Munscher, director of the alliance's North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group.

With fish nets in tow, they dived into the water to catch, identify and tag turtles. They returned Sunday to continue their work and to celebrate the six different local species at the Turtlemania fundraiser, where people can drink beer and save turtles.

Proceeds from the event, featuring discounted beer from the Celis Brewery, will help fund the Turtle Survival Alliance's research.

Eric Munscher holds a Texas river cooter by the County Line restaurant near Lake Austin. Led by the Turtle Survival Alliance's North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, researchers captured, tagged, tattooed, weighed, measured, determined sexes and then released a variety of turtle species back into Lake Austin on Saturday.

The alliance, which works to study and protect turtles around the world, began the partnership with the County Line five years ago after learning about its large turtle population through social media. It is one of three sites studied by the group in Texas.

"People love to bring kids to see the turtles," said Scott Ziskovsky, director of marketing and advertising for County Line restaurants. 

"Usually, I mean, there's hundreds and hundreds of turtles here," he said, as he and his two young grandchildren tried to coax the turtles to come close to the restaurant's deck with pieces of bread.

Even though the turtles were more shy Saturday morning, the research group still caught a variety. Researchers tag them by putting notches on their shells or small tattoos on their skin.

Munscher, who occasionally watched the turtles through the restaurant's online "turtle cam" during the pandemic, was eager to reconnect with the local reptiles.

"This is a male Texas cooter," he said, holding one of them and identifying its sex by its size, long claws and tail. "This is the most common species of turtle here."

The goal of the study is to examine the population and health of the turtles over 15 years to help the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department manage the local species, he said. 

The green Texas river cooter is capable of growing to a shell length of as much as a foot. They sometimes share a habitat with a similar turtle species, the red-eared slider, in Austin-area streams and lakes.

"Because (the turtles) either love mussels and clams and things like that, they help keep those populations in check," he said. "Where these lay lots of eggs and have lots of babies, (then) birds, fish, mammals eat all the eggs and babies. So they're providing a very energy-dense food source for lots of other animals."

Because it is a keystone species, declines in the turtle population also could hurt other animals in the local ecosystem.

The turtles' shells make them resilient, helping them survive injuries from boats and live for several decades, but they are an endangered species in parts of the world because of harvesting and poaching, Munscher said.

In Bull Creek and throughout the state, however, turtles have flourished.

"Texas has a very healthy species assortment of turtles," he said.

Ziskovsky said the turtles have long served as an attraction at the restaurant, but the study has helped shed light on the diversity of turtles there. 

"We often think that the little ones are the young ones, but a lot of times they're the oldest ones," he said referring to the some of the adult male turtles, which people often confuse for babies because of their smaller size compared with the adult females.

The restaurant now has a marker with information about the six different species found there: Texas river cooter, Texas map turtle, Guadalupe softshell, red-eared slider, eastern musk turtle and eastern snapping turtle.

The red-eared slider is native to Texas but has become an invasive species in other parts of the country and world, where it has been a popular pet turtle, Munscher said.

The group, which usually examines the turtles twice a year, plans to return in the fall, when Munscher said they hope to open the volunteer opportunity to more members of the public.

"As things open up more and people get more comfortable and people are vaccinated, we'll be able to comfortably open up to volunteers from across the country," he said. 

Those interested in joining can check the group's website for updates.

Eric Munscher prepares containers for turtles by the County Line restaurant near Lake Austin on Saturday.