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

Small Surprises — 11 September 2001

While weather has been Cape Cod perfect for weeks on end, affording visitors with spectacular conditions to enjoy summer vacations, the lack of rain has begun to take a toll.  Especially for terrapins who choose nesting sites in compacted dirt roads, showers are extremely helpful in softening the soil for quarter-ounce hatchlings to scratch their way through to the surface.  And for all our hatchlings no matter where their mothers nested, the lack of substantial precipitation on the Cape has brought on weakening dehydration as they break out of their shells, tunnel for freedom, and then scramble what for an inch-long turtle must seem like marathon distance to reach safety in the marsh.

I discovered one such road nest late this afternoon at the edge of 5th Avenue.  An emergence hole in this hard-as-concrete substrate is fairly easy to spot, and the meandering tracks of escaping hatchlings offer a reassuring confirmation.

Trying to excavate the nest without damaging any lingering inhabitants is not so reassuring, though.  Each layer of soil must be painstakingly removed almost grain by grain.  Any exertion of pressure might rupture viable eggs or damage hatchlings en route to the surface.  In this nest, #223, I felt the softness of a hatchling about three inches below the neck.  As she tried to burrow out, Hatchling 263 had become hopelessly entangled within a web of roots inside the escape tunnel.  A bit dehydrated, too, she didn’t have enough energy to break free.

Half the clutch had been squished and destroyed by vehicular traffic.  Four others had emerged, leaving Hatchling 263 trapped and alone in the nest.  Her carapace was swayed and warped, caved in at the sides.  Her plastron was equally unnatural.  It appeared as though this hatchling had been misshapen while still floating inside her egg, perhaps by the same pressure that had crushed her siblings.

The lack of any meaningful rain for weeks has converted this upland area into a dust bowl.  Along the wrack, tidal ebb and flow at least seep moisture into the soil.  But highland dirt roads are bone dry and hatchlings emerging from these nests show signs of dehydration.  After only a couple of hours soaking in the Connemara Cottage recovery tank, though, Hatchling 263 had already begun to restore her shell to standard form and regain her strength for an early return to the wild.

Swinging by the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to finalize plans for Wednesday’s program, In Search of Terrapin Hatchlings, I found a surprise lounging in a container on the director’s desk.  A local resident had discovered a musk turtle hatchling as she worked her garden this morning.  Not too common out here at the end of the universe, she proved a delightful complement to our terrapin babies.


Back at Connemara Cottage the last surprise awaited.  Two weeks ago as I excavated a nest infested with maggots and red ants, I had found a questionable egg at the bottom of the chamber.  It’s my practice never to remove a viable egg, but simply to re-cover the nest and let the egg incubate naturally in the wild.  But with this site littered with predatory insects and the egg looking borderline non-viable, I placed it in a plastic container, packed it in moist, uninfected sand, and placed it near the recovery tank in the lab.  Each morning I sprayed the sand with water to maintain humidity.

As I walked through the lab this evening and glanced at the recovery tank, I encountered a wave and a wink from the egg container.  Hatchling 262 had pipped.  A very nice surprise to close out the day.