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

AmeriCorps Help Unravel Terrapin Secrets — 24 July 2001

AmeriCorps members Katie and Emily, who have been working on horseshoe crab research with the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary this summer, joined the paludal team this morning.  The westerly breeze gained strength overnight and whistled through halyards at 20 to 25 knots.  Blackfish Creek was a broiling stew, heavily saturated with seaweed and loosened marsh vegetation.  Visibility dipped well below murky, smothering dip-netting chances in the rip, and kayaking — although adventurously exciting — offered no reasonable opportunity for captures.  But we tried both anyhow.

Emily broke the spell with the capture of Terrapin 1174, a very large 10-year-old female at 19.1 centimeters length and 1200 grams weight.  With four abreast, nets in hand, we guarded the shallows like frustrated goal keepers.  Number1174 was unlucky enough to surface within net reach.

On release, she faced a tough challenge returning to the channel.  Gusts had strewn the shoreline so thickly with algae that she had to wrestle her way to freedom, nearly walking on water in the process (below right).

Katie spotted Turtle #804 a few minutes later.  She poked up for air, saw the phalanx of nets, and dropped down to the bottom to wait us out.  About five minutes later, she repeated the same tactic.  When she tried it again in another five minutes, Katie and Maureen had had enough.  Katie pointed at the spot 10 feet upstream and Maureen dip her net directly overhead.  Clink — she felt the shell. And swoop — she netted the turtle.

Last seen as a 10-year-old on 15 August 1999 when she was trapped in Fresh Brook south of Lieutenant Island’s Turtle Point, #804 has grown 5 to 7 centimeters all around and has added over 125 grams in weight.  Finding her in a new location adds depth to our understanding of how our Wellfleet terrapin use the entire bay habitat.  Once we thought they remained pretty much in the same creek year after year, all year around.  Now that our marking efforts have reached critical mass, we’re beginning to see lots of movement from creek to creek and throughout the whole bay, for feeding, for nesting, for brumating and for myriad reasons of which we haven’t a clue.

Number 804’s two captures are illustrated on the right, with the 1999 capture in red and the 2001 observation in white.

A pre-pubescent 5-year-old female was found basking near the barrier beach at the bottom center of the map last year.  This spring, she also showed up in Blackfish creek like Turtle #804.

Earlier, we documented an extraordinary nesting run of 3.5 nautical miles from Chipman’s Cove to Hatches Creek (see Epics, 17 June 2001).  An equally long and even more treacherous nesting journey was recorded earlier this season, when Terrapin #944 swam from her brumation site in a creek south of Lieutenant Island (to the right of the red mark) to nest across the bay on Great Island, about 3.5 nautical miles to the northwest.

There’s obviously a lot more movement within the bay than we had ever suspected.  And Katie’s find of Terrapin #804 this morning adds to our appreciation of how each piece of this large, rich habitat fits into their natural history.