Previous Page Photo-Diary of a Terrapin Researcher  Next Page

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

Mud Wrestling — 13 June 2001

I don’t call Wellfleet the Land of Ooze for nothing.  Fog closed in and blanketed the morning tide, putting nesting on pause for the nonce.  We decided to switch venues and canoe in Chipman’s Cove where we observed a large number just last Thursday.  Two hours of paddling produced a sunburn, dehydration and an empty canoe.  As a measure of desperation, I guided the boat to a spot in nearby Duck Creek where we had spotted turtles basking on mud flats last year.  This area of Wellfleet Harbor is described by locals as black mayonnaise because of its quick mud consistency.  As I slid the boat around Shirt Tail Point and headed for the flats, a voice called from the docks, “You locals?  That’s alright then.  You know you’re gonna die.”"

A quick scan of the mud banks revealed lots and lots of “stones” where only flatness should be.  These stones snapped into action as the canoe approached, and lots of mostly males {and perhaps juveniles} slid into the oozing creek, disappearing momentarily, then bobbing for air.  Surprising to us, not all the turtles could escape.  Many were so high up in the mud and they could barely crawl through the molasses.

Now, even in my Steve Irwin mode, I wouldn’t think of wading across those mud flats to retrieve stranded critters.  But then again, that’s why we pay research assistants such princely sums — to tackle the impossible with can-do aplomb.  “Heck, this is the mother load,” exclaimed Maureen. “I’m not leaving here without those turtles.” And off she went.

Of the 14 terrapins she mud wrestled or we later dip-netted near the flats, only one was a recapture.  Number 764 had last been seen on 4 July 1999 when she nested in an upland location about two miles from today’s capture and in the next creek system to the south.  Maureen commented about the plethora of worms embedded in the ooze with the turtles and the oysters and the soft-shelled clams and her feet.  On a very hot June day such as today, these cool and food-rich flats seem like the choice place for the well-bred terrapin.  We’ll have to revisit this area more frequently, but then the question arises: Is a mud bath considered a tax-exempt fringe benefit?

By evening, after the fog had burnt off and the tide flooded back in, nesting resumed.  A couple, Pete and Cindy, renovating their cottage for summer rental spotted two turtles nesting along their south Lieutenant Island dirt road.  Like a well-trained posse, one stayed with the terrapins while the other raced back to the house to phone.

One of the turtles, #1123, dug a nest in the west track of the road and deposited 22 eggs!  Last year I had stumbled across an uncovered nest in this precise location with another 22 eggs.  Today, Turtle 1123 left her nest uncovered, too, and these are the only two nests we have ever seen with this many eggs.  We marked and protected the site for follow-on observation.  And Pete and Cindy received their “Turtleman of Wellfleet Bay” T-shirt — unattainable anywhere at any price: it must be earned.

The final nester of the day was discovered a half hour later.  Number 826 placed her nest in the west shoulder of another island dirt road, and she was adding the finishing touches when I approached, as she smoothed the area so it would be undetectable.  I did manage to locate the nest chamber and marked it for further observation.