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Don Lewis, Massachusetts Audubon Society,
Fox Island Wildlife Management Area

A Tough Lonely Life — 5 May 2001

Yes, the terrapin researcher lives a tough, lonely life ... enduring elemental extremes of 72 degrees air temperature and 72 degrees water temperature ... no office to call one’s own ... a small dinghy beached on a low tide sandbar the only place to hang one’s net.  A sad, arduous task, but someone must make the sacrifice for the sake of America’s endangered terrapins.  [ASIDE:  The application queue stretches to somewhere west of Laramie, Wyoming.]

Several days of summer heat boiled Blackfish Creek into algae stew.  So murky had the water become that toes disappeared from your feet in less than a half foot of water.  The rip broiled in calico crabs and mating horseshoe crabs and the season’s first school of striped bass.  Terrapins streamed through the channel, poked skyward for a gulp of air, and descended into the invisible muck to dash over the rip to safety.

But today’s tide, two days short of a full moon, dropped to minus 0.3 foot.  And as water drained from the rip, the last set of turtles had nowhere left to hide.  Six terrapins were netted: four females and two males.  All the females were recaptures; the males were seen for the first time.

Back in my rustic office and combo holding pen, I reviewed their histories.  Terrapin 322 we saw just three days ago, and in that short time, she had already gained 18 grams.  Number 189, an ancient female of nearly 21 cm length and close to 1.5 kg weight, has been under observation since she was found nesting in 1990.  Her right front limb sports a well-healed scar for a missing foot, but she manages quite nicely, thank you.  Near the tail end of the tide, two pairs of terrapins came racing through the rip.  In both cases, the female paddled in the lead and a male chased right after her, within an inch or two, zigzagging in the shallows.  So engaged in this ballet were these performers, that the pairs were netted together.

Those two females, #869 and #908, had last been seen on 4 June 2000, together on the same tide that morning.  Back then, Terrapin 869 had a noticeable abrasion on her neck.  But today, that injury had completely healed and had disappeared.

The post-processing release offered even more comic relief than the normal chaotic dash for the creek.  One of the males (#1058) had obviously gotten attached to his temporary home and my field office.  While the other turtles beat it for parts unknown, he crawled back to the boat and burrowed under the bow.  It proved a deuce of a time trying to unbeach the dinghy without disturbing this squatter.  Alas, the hard life of a terrapin researcher presents one impossible challenge after another.

The wind back-flipped to the northeast, blowing off the North Atlantic and returning temperatures to a springtime normal 54°F. Water remained in the mid-60s and gusts kicked up an impenetrable chocolate murk. The lone capture of the afternoon tide came late in the flow and barely registered as she flooded through the rapids.

Terrapin 1006 is a large mature female, nearly 19 centimeters long and weighing 1230 grams. She was last seen on the evening of 2 July 2000 as she floated through the rip in an equally murky low tide.