How to Find a Diamondback Terrapin Nest

June 10th, 2015

Diamondback Terrapin #95 Laying Eggs off Sippican Harbor 

Well, as Turtle Journal has learned with decades of experience, the easiest way to discover a diamondback nest is to find mother terrapin digging, and then patiently, silently, stealthily waiting for her to complete the process.

Diamondback Terrapin #95 Nesting in Sandy Patch at Wrack Line

With a bit of luck and skill, you spot the turtle from a considerable distance and you wait with telephoto lens, so that you don’t disturb her.

Diamondback Terrapin #95 Laying Eggs into Nest Chamber

If she detects you before beginning to actually lay eggs, the terrapin will most likely abandon the nest.

Diamondback Terrapin #95 Laying Eggs into Nest

If she’s already started laying, as with Terrapin #95 above, the turtle may continue until she deposits all her eggs.

Diamondback Terrapin #95, Her Excavated Nest, 12 Perfect Eggs

When she finishes laying eggs, and the terrapin begins to cover and disguise the nest, you can approach.  Here Diamondback Terrapin #95 deposited 12 perfect eggs.

Diamondback Terrapin Nesting Run Tracks & Nest (Top Right)

Sadly for researchers, terrapins are fairly cleaver and stealthy themselves.  So, you learn to read tracks.  Like a tank, turtles leave “tread marks and plastron drags” as they crawl up from the water and meander along the beach.  With the right sand conditions, you get beautiful tracks like those above.  The direction of travel can be discerned from the upside down commas that turtles leave as they push off with their rear legs.

Diamondback Terrapin Nest (Left) and Nesting Run Tracks

And if conditions are just perfect, like this morning, the nest itself shows as an unmistakable pattern in the sand.  Within a few hours, wind and sun will erase all signs, and the nest will disappear.

Excavated Diamondback Terrapin Nest and 13 Perfect Eggs

So, as with all things in life, 99% of success is determined by just being there at the right time.  The challenging part, though, is figuring out where and when.

NOTE:  Diamondback terrapins are a protected species in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Please alert Turtle Journal, 508-274-5108, if you find a turtle or a nest.  We’re always ready to respond.

First Over-Wintered Terrapin Hatchling Emerges @ Tabor’s Schaefer Lab Beach

June 8th, 2015

Sue Wieber Nourse Rescues Exhausted Over-Wintered Hatchling 

While checking for threatened diamondback terrapin nesting at Tabor Academy’s Old Schaefer Lab beach this morning, Turtle Journal’s Sue Wieber Nourse discovered an over-wintered terrapin hatchling meandering in the sand.

Emerged Over-Wintered Terrapin Hatchling Meanders

The Schaefer Lab beach is a documented terrapin nesting site, and hosts the most critical nursery salt marsh habitat for infants and juveniles in the Inner Sippican Harbor.  (See Rare Turtle Nests at Tabor’s Schaefer Lab and Two Rare Terrapin Nests Hatch @ Old Schaefer Oceanology Lab.)

Inaugural Recipient of Jaeger Chair in Marine Studies

Prior to founding Turtle Journal and becoming CEO of Cape Cod Consultants, Sue Wieber Nourse was honored as the inaugural recipient of the endowed Jaeger Chair in Marine Studies at Tabor Academy.  Sue and her advanced marine science students engaged in highly lauded and original scientific research, funded by a prestigious National Fish & Wildlife Foundation grant, that confirmed the existence of threatened diamondback terrapins in Marion and documented previously unknown nesting sites for these rare turtles.  Once on the brink of extirpation, their continued survival stems from this successful conservation initiative.

Sue Rescues Exhausted and Dehydrated Hatchling

This little baby hatched early last fall and opted to remain buried upland rather than venturing into the great wild world.  Given the brutal winter Massachusetts suffered, the hatchling may have chosen wisely.  This morning, though, the terrapin baby exhausted itself trying to reach the marsh through concrete obstacles exposed on this sand starved beach.  She had collapsed dehydrated and weak when Sue rescued her.  The hatchling is recovering at Turtle Journal headquarters, receiving appropriate TLC before being returned to the wild.


Diamondback Terrapin Nesting Run Tracks and Completed Nest

With Sue checking Schaefer, East Marion and Wareham nesting beaches, Don Lewis patrolled other SouthCoast nesting sites.  At one Aucoot Cove site, Don found a half dozen diamondback terrapin nesting tracks from the nighttime high tide.  He discovered the clear sign of two completed nests within inches of each other.

Eleven Large, Pink, Freshly Laid Eggs

This first nest contained 11 very large, pink and freshly deposited eggs in a nest chamber four to eight inches under the sand.  Because of their highly vulnerable location, eggs from this site are harvested and relocated in a protected turtle garden.  When hatchlings emerge, they are released back at the site of their natal nest.

Another Freshly Complete Diamondback Terrapin Nest

Within inches of the first nest, Don spotted signs of the second completed nest.

Ten Big, Beautiful Pink Eggs Harvested from Second Nest

This second nest contained ten large, pink and freshly deposited eggs in a nest chamber about three to six inches below the surface.

Third Nest Laid on the Overnight High Tide

A third nest was discovered about ten feet from the first two.  It contained 11 very large and freshly laid eggs in a chamber three to eight inches deep.  In sum, the Turtle Journal team recovered 32 healthy eggs from this site for protecting in our safe turtle garden.

Great Blue Heron Babies Hatch in SouthCoast Rookery

May 31st, 2015

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) Female and Two Hatchlings 

A storm front charged across coastal Massachusetts this afternoon, May 31st, preceded by dark clouds and gusty winds, and dropping temperatures more than 20 degrees in five minutes.  The Turtle Journal’s Don Lewis & Sue Wieber Nourse were caught by the storm while we visited the SouthCoast great blue heron rookery to document the birth of hatchlings.  Behavior by adult birds on both active heron nests over the past few days strongly indicated that eggs had hatched, but the babies were too deeply set within the nests to confirm their birth.

Female Great Blue Heron and Two Hatchlings during Storm

Two months ago, on March 31st, we trudged down paths still covered with eight inches of snow to document the return of great blue herons to this SouthCoast rookery.  Harsh winter weather conditions had postponed their arrival, just as bad weather had postponed all other spring emergence.  (See Great Blue Herons Return to Rookery for more details.)

Great Blue Heron Female with Hatchling

This nest had been completed destroyed by hurricane force blizzards in January and February.  It and two other nests within the rookery were rebuilt, two by herons and one by a pair of ospreys.  For the full story of the rebuilding process, see Rebuilding Destroyed Nest and Loving Bonds.

Great Blue Heron Mother with Her Two Babies

While we had not been able to confirm births on earlier visits, we got lucky today with the storm.   High winds swayed the northernmost nest and riled babies and mother just enough for us to get a peek of the hatchlings with binoculars and telephoto lens.  Two beautiful great blue heron babies popped up while momma tried to keep them secured within the swaying nest.  The nearby second heron nest likely also contains hatchlings, but the nest is much deeper and it will take a few more days of growth before hatchling heads are visible.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) Pair Arrived Late This Spring

The osprey nest within this rookery got a later start.  The pair began rebuilding their winter destroyed nest on April 22nd; see Osprey Pair Rebuild Winter Destroyed Nest.  We anticipate a late arrival for this year’s osprey hatchlings.  (For more information on this osprey pair, see Osprey Love on the Fast Track.)

First Diamondback Terrapin Nester of 2015 on SouthCoast of Massachusetts

May 31st, 2015

First Diamondback Terrapin Nester of 2015 on SouthCoast

This morning the Turtle Journal team discovered the first diamondback terrapin nester of the 2015 season on an isolated and protected Massachusetts SouthCoast beach.  With the first steamy morning of the year on the SouthCoast, Sue Wieber Nourse, Don Lewis and Rufus the Turtle Dog patrolled a sampling of SouthCoast nesting sites in anticipation of finding the year’s first nester.

Diamondback Terrapin Nesting Run Tracks

We were not disappointed at our first beach.  At least two female terrapins had come ashore on the morning high tide that coincided with daybreak.

Diamondback Terrapin False (Test) Nest

We followed one set of tracks as the turtle meandered along the beach, stopping every fifty feet or so to dip a false (test) nest.  We tracked this female as she crawled into the salt marsh without depositing her eggs.

Diamondback Terrapin Female Rests on Completed Nest

Following a second set of tracks, which also zigzagged up and down the beach, we encountered our first nester of 2015, as she rested atop her completed nest.

First Nesting Terrapin of 2015 on Her Completed Nest

As though posing for scientific documentation, she illustrated precisely what a pristine terrapin beach nest looks like.  A perfect way to indoctrinate a new set of terrapin researchers for the 2015 season.

Nearly Completed False (Test) Nest in Developed Community

After searching the remainder of the beach, we visited a second site in a developed residential community.  Here, too, a female terrapin had come ashore on the morning tide, dug a couple of false (test) nests, and then returned to the nearby creek without depositing her eggs.

The diamondback terrapin nesting season has officially begun on the SouthCoast of Massachusetts.

Diamondback Terrapin with Fully Developed Eggs

May 29th, 2015

Sue Wieber Nourse Examines Female Terrapin #265 

This morning, 29 May, the Turtle Journal team captured a gravid female diamondback terrapin with fully developed eggs in the main Sippican Harbor mating aggregation.  Her condition portends an imminent beginning to the diamondback terrapin nesting season on the SouthCoast of Massachusetts.

Sue Wieber Nourse Nets Female Terapin in Sippican Harbor

At low tide this morning we launched kayaks into the principal mating aggregations in Sippican Harbor, an estuary of Buzzards Bay.  The first turtle Sue Wieber Nourse netted proved a unique lass:  Terrapin #265.

Female Diamondback Terrapin #265 (a.k.a. Snakehead)

We have been following this lady for ten years, since her first capture on May 30th, 2005 when she was only ~ nine years old.  She’s a special terrapin because of her unmarked, bluish skin which gives the appearance of a snakehead; very un-terrapin like, but easy to distinguish from all others.

Gravid Female Diamondback Terrapin #265

The most important finding this morning was that Terrapin #265 was palpably gravid with fully developed eggs which had dropped about midway down the canal.  We estimate she’s still a few days shy of nesting, especially since #265 remains in the mating aggregation about 2.5 miles north of her nesting site.

When we first saw #265 in 2005, she weighed 1133 grams and measured 18.7 centimeters straight-line carapace length.  Today, a decade later, she weighs 1435 grams and measures 20.1 centimeters carapace length.  Last May 2014, she had a clouded left eye which seemed completely clear this morning.

Sue Wieber Nourse Releases Terrapin #265

Because of her “condition,” we released her immediately after examination, so that she could “get on with it.”  We hope to see her soon at her nesting site.

Female Diamondback Terrapin #115

In addition to Terrapin #265, Sue netted other terrapins whom we had not seen in adulthood.  Both of these turtles would have been the results of the intensive Buzzards Bay conservation effort for terrapin nests, eggs and hatchlings begun by the Turtle Journal team in 2003.

Female Terrapin #115 proved ~ 9 years old from the 2005 hatchling cohort.  She has now reached maturity and should be nesting in the next few weeks.  She did not show palpable signs of gravidity this morning.

Male Diamondback Terrapin #116

Male Terrapin #116 came from the 2006 hatchling cohort and, as is the case with male terrapins, has been mature for several years.