Archive for April, 2001

Fundamental Questions — 25 April 2001

Wednesday, April 25th, 2001

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Low Tide Drained Blackfish Creek Looking West

When temperature drops to 45 degrees, winds howl from the north at 20+ knots, wind chills plunge into the mid-20s, and you’re chest deep in frigid bay water wading across Blackfish Creek, you begin to question life’s fundamentals: the importance of research, the value of terrapin conservation, and most urgently, your sanity.  The sky was gray, the water grayer, sandbars gray, and my fingers ashen.


Mating Pair of Horseshoe Crabs (Female in Front)

Very little turtle activity in the creek.  The only critters stirring were horseshoe crabs.  Six pairs were mating in the low tide rip along sandbars and a single pair remained locked in warm embrace at the high tide mark on Lieutenant Island north beach …


Horseshoe Crab Mating Art

. . following a mating dance of some artistic proportion.


Male Diamondback Terrapin #1049 Slips through the Rip

I saw two mature female terrapins snorkeling in the main channel, but visibility proved impossible to locate them underwater.  Near the end of the tide, a lone male paddled by me.


Freezing Don Lewis Processes Male Terrapin #1049

Terrapin 1049 measured 11.7 centimeters carapace length and weighed in at 276 grams.  A passive fellow, he still showed muddy residue on his tail and cowl, indicating a very recent emergence from brumation.

The Awakening — 24 April 2001

Tuesday, April 24th, 2001


Sea Gull Joins the Turtle Guy in the Rip

Low tide came at sunrise, and a lone sea gull joined me wading on the rip.  He taunted, “I can find terrapins as well as you.”  And I thought I had found an easy mark.  But a southwest breeze had kicked up overnight and churned Blackfish Creek into the consistency of Turkish coffee.  My toes disappeared in inch-deep water. 

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Mature Female Terrapin #1048 Flows through Mucky Rip

I watched one large female float toward me, then plunge into the murk along with my disembodied toes somewhere down below.  For nearly an hour I watched and waited, but nothing broke through the haze.  Then, as tide reached maximum ebb, a head snorkeled about fifty feet ahead.  I checked the current and positioned myself within depth-charge splatter of where I thought she might surface.  Seconds passed . . . a minute . . . two minutes.  Had she slipped through the camouflaging muck?


Mud Caked Terrapin #1048 Recently Emerged from Brumation

Nope.  A whisper of a shell tumbled toward me and I netted Terrapin 1048, a 13-year-old female of nearly 18 centimeters carapace length and 1114 grams.  Most terrapins have not yet emerged from brumation, and #1048 showed signs of recently burrowing out of her winter hibernaculum.  Her rear quarters were caked in muddy brown pigment.

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Feisty Terrapin #1048

Well, she may have just woken from six months sleep, but she was anything but groggy.  Described as aggressive and feisty, she let me know in unambiguous terms that she did not appreciate having her maiden swim spoiled by a visit with Turtleman.

Firsts — 23 April 2001

Monday, April 23rd, 2001

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Pre-Dawn Low Tide in Blackfish Creek

Low tide arrived a little before dawn.  The first “workable” tide of the season.  Bathed in salmon, Blackfish Creek seemed an impressionist’s canvas as I stumbled bleary eyed to the shoreline and prepared for the morning’s quest.  Temperatures hung in the low fifties and I could feel the swift, cool bay through my waders as I slogged midway across the channel to reach the rip.


The “Rip” Forms as Salt Marshes Drain at Low Tide

The rip forms as acres of abutting marsh are drained by Wellfleet’s 15-foot tidal swing and water gushes through the shrinking “hose” of Blackfish Creek.  At the rip itself, water levels drop to inches when ebb tide approaches and sandbars further constrict the flow.  Diamondback terrapins, surprised to find their habitat disappeared beneath them, are flushed through the rip with each tidal swing.  Last evening, I saw the first terrapin of the season paddling through the channel.  So, this morning might offer the first capture of the year.

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Mature Female Terrapin #920 Tumbles through the Rip

Visibility ranged from good to lousy depending on location.  In the center of the flow, algae and seaweed oozed through the channel as if it were a giant vacuum cleaner sucking out winter’s debris.  At the edges and in eddies, the water provided enough clarity to see critters flowing by.  The first big carapace I saw wasn’t a turtle but a large female horseshoe crab that clawed its way onto the rim of the rip and burrowed down.  Further up channel, I saw four mating pairs of horseshoe crabs, females digging into the soft sand and males hanging on for dear life and flapping wildly in the turbulent current.  A flounder whooshed by me, and then I caught sight of a mature female (Terrapin 920) zooming out of control, spinning and tumbling as she bounced over the rip.


Eager Male Terrapin #1046 Follows #920 through the Rip

Number 920 had last been observed on the morning of 30 August as she basked off a nearby sandbar.  At the time she was plump and ready — at 1400 grams — to handle six months of brumation.  Today, she still seemed in excellent shape, although she had lost 36 grams over winter.  Immediately following her came Terrapin 1046, an eager 7-year-old male, hot in pursuit and equally out of control in the rapids.


Male Diamondback Terrapin #1047 Streams through the Rip

And finally, ten minutes later, a dark colored mature male (Terrapin 1047) came streaming through the channel.


Mature Female Terrapin #920 Returns to Blackfish Creek

After getting assessed, measured, weighed, and (for the two males who had not been previously seen) marked, the threesome hot-footed across the beach and, with a swish of the tail and a critical hiss, they disappeared once again into depths of Blackfish Creek … with stories to tell their awakening comrades.

“Watson, the games afoot!” — 22 April 2001

Sunday, April 22nd, 2001

Water temperatures have crept ever so slowly into the upper 50s, and finally today, spring sprung with a vengeance.  A fierce westerly breeze drove hazy warmth across the Outer Cape.  Briefly this afternoon water over the tidal flats registered 60°F.


Warm Spring Temps and 30 Knot Breeze

So, despite 30+ knot gusts whipping across the bay and converting Blackfish Creek into a rodeo bull-riding event, the temptation proved irresistible to visit with our paludal pals, perhaps finally awake from six and a half months of winter slumber.  We hauled the kayaks across the tinkerytoy bridge to Lieutenant Island, and saddled up for a Disney “E” ride.

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Kayaks Ready

The tide flooded westward out of Blackfish Creek and slammed into bay breakers thrust eastward by prevailing gusts.  No need to paddle upstream; wind skipped the kayak like a flat stone across the wave tops.  But the game proved well worth the candle when a large, mature female terrapin surfaced 25 feet ahead, gulped a breath of air, scanned the horizon for predators, and then uttered a reptilian unquotable as she spotted Turtleman to windward.  She headed to the bottom and slipped over the rip into the deeper waters of the Singles Bar where adult terrapins gather during the mating season.

The paddle back to shore — against 35 knot gusts — took a bit more effort than the trip upstream.  But after a winter of terrapin deprivation, sight of our first turtle of the season made all well.

So, Watson, get your gear in shape.  The games afoot.

The Great Escape — 10 April 2001

Tuesday, April 10th, 2001


Male Fiddler Crab

Two days of bright sunshine baked the Land of Ooze, and its mud flats have begun to spring to life.  True, these critters aren’t turtles.  But they do live in the marsh creeks, they burrow under the mud for winter, and they are an imminent precursor of our beloved terrapins.

Water temperatures, even early this morning, had reached 52 degrees Fahrenheit.  Fiddler crabs sprang from the ooze, muddy mounds surrounding escape tunnels.


Male Fiddler Crabs

They haven’t begun to march in armies yet, but they have emerged and that’s a welcomed harbinger of things to come.  Even in the grassy marsh, fiddlers are on the move.

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Springtime Duets

And it is springtime, so it shouldn’t surprise us that all God’s creatures seem to prefer a two-seater rather than flying solo.